Thursday, January 31, 2008

the pottess (rhymes with goddess)

more of that funky finish

I won’t go on too long about the presentation that Chap Kusimba of the Field Museum gave last night at a meeting of the Anthropology Alliance, other than to note how I was (am always) struck by his gentle style of presenting -- something I’m so unused to, given the nature of the presentations I’m usually a part of (read: Technology & Business driven. Dressed in suits). Mr. Kusimba was wearing a suit all right, but as a man who was born in Uganda and raised in Kenya his voice and manner bestowed a gentle, melodic cadence on the proceedings. I found myself smiling and nodding just to listen to the music of it.

And then there was what he had to say.

I suspected that he’d be talking about textiles, since the front of the room was laid out with heaps of new acquisitions from Madagascar, and the last time I listened to Kusimba’s lovely music was when he spoke on a book that he had recently helped to edit with some colleagues on the Field’s collection of Madagascar textiles (Unwrapping the Textile Traditions of Madagascar) -- currently the largest in the world, given an unfortunate fire on the island nation itself that destroyed a tremendous collection of what was then the largest assemblage.

This was fine by me: I’m a fiber freak (when I travel it’s textiles I bring home -- hand loomed, embroidered, loved). But actually: he was speaking on pottery.

Bukusu pottery. Which, come to find out, I discovered I own a piece of. [1]

Lovely lecture, made all the better by his confession that pottery “makes me melt” and the passion that came through. He ran an excerpt from a documentary that follows a Bukusu pottess through the making of the pot (part of the Field’s work is to capture the stories of these crafty girls on film) -- from the gathering of the clay, through the shaping by hand, the drying in the sun and the way it’s polished by river rocks prior to firing. How it’s fired in a makeshift mound of wood and wet grass that functions as kiln.

He spoke a little of the economics -- how pottery making is enabling Bukusu women, many of them widowed (many by the AIDS epidemic), to feed their families and support them in some comfort.

And he referred too to a strange taboo that I pressed him for more info on: Only post-menopausal women are allowed to gather the clay to make the pots. Why? Because the pot as it takes shape is considered a womb, and jealous one at that, and if a woman capable of bearing children touches the clay before it’s been gathered all together the risk that the pot will collapse during production is great. Better to ensure its integrity, its fertility, by letting the old gal do the gathering.

A little Googling turns up more on this taboo and others -- Stevie M. Nangendo’s Pottery Taboos and Symbolism in Bukusu Society, Western Kenya. The paper is freely available online.

Also mentioned at last night’s event: The retirement of Ben Bronson, a long time curator at the Field who, it turns out, was the author of the Field’s collecting policy which ensures that it will acquire no artifact in which provenance is not clearly known. The intent, of course, is to prevent collection from looted sites which compromises both the local economy and the archaeology. Bronson’s policy served as the foundation of the policy that was later adopted by UNESCO.

And so concludes this anthropological geek out. Thank you for your patience.

[1] A wonderful earthy orange hand shaped and fired piece that a girlfriend gave me many years ago saying: “It’s from Africa somewhere -- I’m not sure where.” I’ll try to take a shot as soon as natural light allows and post it here.


anniemcq said...

I love this. D., you always open my eyes to new (and old) things. Thanks!

narthex said...

Very interesting. Now I feel compelled to do some research, I can't let this kind of thing just flee from my mind (vestiges of the art history background in me :p)

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