Gur-speaking peoples, Burkina Faso
early/mid 20th century
via Artnet Magazine (2/9/06):
FOR HEARTH AND ALTAR
by Victor M. Cassidy
"For Hearth and Altar," an exhibition of 125 African terra cotta pots made mostly during the 20th century, is the Art Institute of Chicago’s most stimulating, challenging show in memory. It takes us back to the origins of civilization and raises fundamental questions about the nature of art. Severe and unfamiliar, the work delivers no lazy sensual delights. Differences among the pieces are subtle. Viewers must look -- and think -- carefully to get the best from this work.
"For Hearth and Altar," which runs at the Art Institute until February 20, celebrates Keith Achepol’s gift of African ceramics to the Art Institute. A printmaker and now-retired art professor, Achepol acquired the pottery over 20 years, making many purchases on the spot in Africa. He used his artist’s eye to select pieces and then investigated the work he had just bought. Achepol calls African pots "profoundly handmade." He likes their anonymity -- the name of the artist is rarely known -- and says that these works are not about "who did it," but about beauty.
10,000 Year Tradition
African ceramics can be traced back to 8,000 BC, says Kathleen Bickford Berzock, curator of African art at the Art Institute and organizer of this exhibition. Pottery represents an important step in civilization, for it makes cooking and food storage possible. It appears in many parts of Africa at once, usually in connection with iron working.
Most potters are women and the trade is hereditary. Potters mine the clay (men help with this physically taxing chore), bring it to the village and work it to remove air bubbles that would explode as the vessel is fired. Some potters add temper (sand, ground-up pebbles, finely chopped fibers) to the clay, which makes it less plastic and prevents cracks during firing.
VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.