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African Artistry in Clay: Women Potters of the Folona, Mali

It is mid-day. I am positioned with my tripod and camera on a hillock near the edge of the village looking back toward the houses. One by one, women emerge from between mud walls and thatched roofs carrying baskets loaded high with small cooking pots or balancing large storage vessels on heads with strong necks and straight backs. Adolescent girls help their mothers with the larger pots, younger children carry pots that are greater than their small frames, even children three and four years old are given something to carry to the firing ground. The men are not in evidence, though some do make an appearance later, perhaps more to check out what I am doing, than to offer support to their wives.

It has been about three weeks since the last communal firing and the women have produced nearly a thousand pots to be fired. On this occasion, the pots assembled represent the labors of primarily eight women, with a few others each contributing a handful of vessels to be fired with those of daughters and friends. Pots ready for firing are spread in all directions, for a last bit of drying in the sun. The women have laid a huge circle of wooden branches to serve as the base for stacking. Although they work together on the process, each woman assembles her own supply of wood and straw, and each will be responsible for properly stacking her own pots and tending the fire.

At the signal of the senior potter, the women take up the long cylinders that will ultimately serve as downspouts carrying rainwater from the flat adobe roofs of regional houses and mosques. These are set upright in the middle of the circle, supported by chunks of alluvial mud that will be ground for temper in future clay mixtures. Large jars for storing water and cooking are placed upright around the downspouts, with their openings closed by smaller vessels tipped on their sides. Tall wide rimmed bowls are placed upside down among the larger jars. Lids and smaller pots are placed inside, in between, and on top of the larger vessels, stacked high in the center. Around the edge are placed pots with chipped rims and serious cracks from previous firings to provide a shield from the wind and help retain the heat within during the firing. The stacking takes several hours. To the untrained eye it may look haphazard, however, the women know just how critical it is that every pot be well placed and secure. A single pot that breaks loose during the firing could cause an entire section to shift, potentially ruining the pots around it. The older women watch the younger ones like hawks, barking out revisions and occasionally moving in to reposition a vessel. When all of the pots have been placed, more branches are stacked up around the edge, stones are positioned to ring and support the circle, and the entire pile is covered with straw. The women stand back as the senior potter gives the signal to light the fire.

This is surely the most dramatic moment of the entire process, as flames leap into the air. It marks the moment when the women must turn the fate of their labors over to nature. They will tend the fire over the next 12-14 hours until just before dawn, racing into the heat with armloads of straw to throw on openings in the straw when they appear. Of the dozen or so firings I witnessed in the region, all but one was remarkably successful, with few broken or poorly fired pots.

On one occasion, however, no sooner had the fire been lit, than black clouds appeared on the horizon. The skies opened up and the rains fell hard for several hours. It did not take long to begin to hear the unmistakable ping of pots bursting. Several small vessels tumbled out from the upper reaches of the pile. The women stood back, clucking and sighing with disappointment. Eventually they insisted that I take cover, both out of concern for my welfare (and that of my camera equipment), but also to be able to focus their attention on salvaging what they could of the disaster. When the rain let up a bit around midnight, I walked back to the firing ground to find that most of the women had given up and returned to their compounds. A couple of teenage girls, soaked to the skin, sat shivering in the darkness. Only one of the senior women was still present, patching holes in her section of the fire with damp straw. In the end, her efforts paid off as she lost fewer pots than anyone else in what was a disastrous firing. The mood was grim the following morning as the women removed one after another of the poorly fired and broken vessels, quietly surveying the damage all around.

The predawn dismantling of the fire is usually a festive occasion. Smoldering ashes are brushed from still warm pots carefully removed to assemblages of each potters’ works. By day’s light, the women are making the rounds to critique and compliment the success of their own and their neighbors’ efforts, bending to tap the large storage jars, admiring the surface shine or decorative patterns on the vessels, turning the smaller ones in their hands, speculating on the prices their works will command. The pots are then loaded into baskets and onto heads to be taken back to the individual compounds for storage and transport to local and regional markets.

The entire production process begins again with a trip to one of a number of clay pits in the area. The best quality comes from digging a couple of meters into a dried up riverbed not far from the village. While the women may share a single clay pit for the season, the clay they dig with the help of their sons and daughters is theirs. The clay is broken up and spread on mats to dry. Obvious impurities such as small stones or sticks are removed. It is stored in large vessels, slaked down with water the night before it is to be used. For temper, the chunks of pre-fired alluvial mud and shards of old pots are broken and ground in mortars similar to those used for food processing and then sifted to a fine powder.

To mix the clay body, the women sweep clear a well-worn spot within their workrooms, or they may spread out a mat in the courtyard of the family compound. A basin of temper is deposited onto the ground and carefully raked with the hand into a large circle. Wet clay is plunked in the center and this is covered with more of the sifted temper. The women then begin a kind of dance, using only the right foot, moving clockwise, rocking back and forth to mix the temper into the clay with the force of their bodies. Every so often they will bend at the waist to check the consistency, adding more temper or a sprinkle of water as needed. When the clay body is mixed to their satisfaction—something the best of them know by feel—they will scrape the excess from their foot and roll the clay into balls. The clay body is remarkably plastic for the high percentage (as much as 30%) of temper it contains.

When a woman is ready to begin the forming process (often after the family meal and other domestic chores have been attended to), she positions herself on one end of a plank of wood placed flat on the ground, legs extended on either side. The balls of clay are carefully wedged and kneaded and shaped into cylinders sized according to the volume of the intended vessel. A cylinder is then placed on a broken pottery shard that will serve as a palette on which to turn the vessel as it is formed. The potter begins by pounding a depression in the cylinder with the heel of her hand, shifting to pounding with the tips of her fingers until the appropriate depth has been reached. She then begins to draw the walls up and out from the inside to form a loose hemispherical shape. Large coils are added to complete the sides and the vessel is shaped using little more than the potter’s hands and a shell-shaped seedpod. The larger the vessel the more difficult it is to maintain the walls during the building process. On more than one occasion, Fatoumata Kouyaté, the potter with whom I spent the most time, was called to restore the proper shape to the elastic walls of a large vessel under construction by a less-talented neighbor.

More coils are added to complete the neck and create the rim. Again the vessel is set aside while others are being finished. It is at this point that the upper surfaces and rims are completed and given decorative treatment according to local conventions and the stylistic hand of the artist. The shoulders and rims of water jars are carefully smoothed, to be polished and slipped when the vessel is leather hard. A small wooden roulette may be used to impart a pattern just below the rim, but most of the textured decoration appears around the belly of the vessel. Here the potter uses one or more plaited fiber roulettes to create zigzag or crosshatched patterns. A red iron-rich stone is used to draw a design on top of the leatherhard textured surface, and raised ridges marked by the impression of a dentelated calabash wheel separate the two surface areas. Additional marks may be impressed with peanut shells or with the caps from tubes of toothpaste, and nodules may be added at intervals around the vessel. Except for final polishing and slipping, the upper surfaces are by and large completed before the vessel is removed from the palette. The bottom and lower sides are then scraped and smoothed to remove excess clay and consolidate the surface. A foot may be added at this time, and the appropriate texture is applied to the base.

At some point in the decorative process, the potter adds her personal signature—a pair of parallel indentations, a circle inscribed by a pair of lines, impressed dots in triplicate. These marks are often passed from mother to daughter, or more rarely, from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law. Virtually every potter I asked said that the marks are not essential to distinguishing the work of one woman from another, even when two women produce the same type of vessel. And indeed, I came to recognize the hands of the women with whom I worked most closely. It was in part a matter of quality, but also one of style, even when creating the simplest of vessel forms.

The most ubiquitous of pots made by these women are the jars used to store and cool water and pots of various sizes destined for the cooking of grains or sauces. Still in demand are the long rain spouts and steamers. An unusual vessel is a small spherical pot with 3-4 circular holes evenly placed around the shoulders. These will provide drinking water for chickens and guinea fowl since the openings are too small for goats or sheep to deplete the supply intended for the birds. Other types of pots are attempted by only the most experienced of potters. These include the colander-like pierced bowl used for smoking fish and for preparing locust bean paste for flavoring sauces. One of the most interesting vessels is the pot known as “bamadaga” (lit. “crocodile pot”), a lidded vessel used to store sacred medicines. The knobby surface that gives the pot its name serves as a warning to all that this is not a vessel to be touched or tampered with. Huge jars used to store grains are glimpsed in the dark recesses of women’s kitchens but are no longer being produced.

Life is not easy for these women. However, they are proud of their skills and of their ability to support their families with their artistry. While their concerns are for the future, I see the past, a rich tradition of ceramic production preserved in their artistry. The past is present in the style of their technology, in the range of vessels they produce, in the style of the surfaces, and in their identity as potters. It is their heritage.

The tall cylindrical rain spouts are set upright in the center and supported by chunks of alluvial mud that will later be ground and sifted as temper. Cracked and broken pots form a shield around the edge of the pile. Sissingué, Mali. The women climb in around the stacked pots to position smaller pots on top of the pile.
Sissingué, Mali.
Large pots are stacked upright with smaller ones nestled on top closing their openings. Dogbèlèdougou, Mali. The entire pile is then covered with straw. Dogbèlèdougou, Mali.
Dismantling the firing takes place just after dawn. Each woman retrieves her pots and then with help from family and friends transports them back to her compound. Sissingué, Mali. Fatoumata Kouyaté mixes clay and temper with her right foot in a rocking dance-like motion. Sissingué, Mali.
Fatoumata Kouyaté helps a neighbor mount the sides of a large water jar with coils. Sissingué, Mali. Fatoumata Kouyaté uses a dentellated wheel cut from a piece of calabash to impress a line of designs around the belly of a water jar. Sissingué, Mali.
Fatoumata Kouyaté scrapes excess clay from the lower part of a vessel. Sissingué, Mali. Fatoumata Kouyaté piercing holes in a pot that will be used as a colander, or to steam grains and smoke fish, as needed. She allows the pot to become leatherhard but not too dry because she still needs to complete the bottom. Sissingué, Mali.
Aramatou Kouyaté’s mark is a circle made with the fingertip crossed by a line made with the rough end of a bit of bamboo. Dogbèlèdougou, Mali. A water jar, chicken watering vessel, two incense burners, a sauce pot and a “crocodile” pot. Sissingué, Mali.
After the initial blaze of flames dies down, the women look for openings in the straw and run to toss fresh armloads where they appear. Sissingué, Mali. ……

the author Barbara Frank is an art historian on the faculty of Stony Brook University, New York, who has done extensive research on African craft traditions. She is the author of Mande Potters and Leatherworkers: Art and Heritage in West Africa (Smithsonian 1998, 2001) and co-editor of Status and Identity in West Africa: Nyamakalaw of Mande (Indiana 1995). Articles on African ceramics include “More Than Wives and Mothers. The Artistry of Mande Potters,” in African Arts, 27, 4 (1994): 26-37, 93-94, and “Reconstructing the History of an African Ceramic Tradition: Technology, Slavery and Agency in the Region of Kadiolo (Mali),” in Cahiers d’Etudes africaines,131, XXXIII, 3 (1993):381-401. Her research has been supported by a Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Abroad Fellowship, a Social Science Research Council Grant, and a Senior Fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.

The Folona region is in the southeastern corner of Mali, West Africa bordering Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire. The potters here are Dyula, one of a number of ethnic minority artisan groups providing their services for the dominant Senufo farmer majority. This research was initiated with a collaborative collection and documentation project with a team from the National Museum of Mali, funded in part by the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at UCLA, and the West African Museums Program (WAMP) based in Dakar, Senegal.

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