Clay—Modeling African Design

, University Collections Gallery, Harvard Art Museums

Pitcher with spout and handle, Algeria, Kabyle, late 19th–early 20th century. Ceramic. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Gift of Dr. Algernon Coolidge, 31-27-50/B5085, TL41971.42. Photo: © President and Fellows of Harvard College; Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

University Collections Gallery, Harvard Art Museums

This exhibition highlights artistic innovation and creativity in Africa as seen primarily through the traditions of ceramic arts from across the continent and over its long history. Countering the assumption that African arts and societies are largely unchanging and bound to traditions and customs, the remarkable diversity of objects and styles on display here tells a different story. A selection of more than 50 works on loan from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, including those by newly discovered Nigerian artist Alice Osayewe, are shown alongside contemporary photographs from the Harvard Art Museums permanent collections.

The unique malleability and plasticity of clay, as well as its prominent use in global art contexts, make it ideal for exploring not only African art forms and aesthetics in particular, but also broader questions of design. By its very nature, clay embodies the notion of transformation, shifting from a soft to hard state in the course of firing. This material property relates directly to the many design possibilities inherent in clay. The fabric of clay also represents important values in Africa. A core feature of the earth and broadly available in nearly every environmental zone, clay is often connected with sacredness as linked to the dead and to an array of deities and earth spirits.

African languages have various terms for the concept of design. In Yoruba, ọnà means not only design, but also pattern, shape, or art. The word also connotes artistic embellishment, ornamentation, and beauty, and it gives us the Yoruba term for artist, ọlọ́nà, and for artists working in specific media, such as leather workers and embroiderers. On the east coast of Africa, Swahili speakers use the term kubuni for design; the word also references invention and improvisation, evoking the importance of imagination within the larger concept of design.

Curated by Suzanne Preston Blier, Allen Whitehill Clowes Professor of Fine Arts and of African and African American Studies, Harvard University; and Jessica Levin Martinez, Director of Academic and Public Programs and Research Curator of African Art Initiatives, Harvard Art Museums.

This exhibition was made possible by support from the William E. Teel African and Oceanic Arts Endowment Fund and the Alexander S., Robert L., and Bruce A. Beal Exhibition Fund. Associated programming was made possible by the Richard L. Menschel Endowment Fund and the M. Victor Leventritt Fund.