The enslaved artist whose ceramics were an act of resistance


The speckled brown storage jar looks modest, even homely, from a distance – something you might find on a porch to the south. Get closer and see the wild runs of the alkaline glaze up and down the surface and some enlightening traces of the artist known as Dave the Potter or David Drake, who made strong stoneware in the Edgefield District of South Carolina while walking through various Owners was enslaved.

At the bottom of the pot there are three marks that look like fingerprints where someone – possibly Drake – dipped the pot in glaze. A word that Drake inscribed with a sharpened stick or a similar tool runs over his shoulder: “Katination”, a variant of concatenation, the state in which one has a yoke or a chain. Equally remarkable, experts say, is that the glass with the Drake 12.

It’s not quite 15 inches, but this glass hints at the artistic achievements of enslaved African Americans and the continued erasure of their works from American cultural institutions for nearly 300 years.

When the glass went up for sale at Brunk Auctions in Asheville, NC in November, art museums across the country received attention. The estimate was $ 40,000 to $ 60,000. But competing museums drove the price up to $ 369,000 with the buyer’s premium, set a world auction record for David Drake’s works, and crowned a year with large institutional purchases of his distinctive ceramics.

Buyers in 2020 included the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as the more historically oriented International African American Museum, currently in Charleston, SC. At a time when museum directors are both highly motivated and pressured to reconsider the racist prejudice built into their collections, acquiring and displaying Drake’s extraordinary works offers a dramatic way to do so and unite at the same time Provide insight into the history of slavery.

Timothy Burgard, curator of American art at the Fine Arts Museums, who accepted the contract for the Catination glass, described these acquisitions as a “turning point” in the stories told by American art museums about slavery. He plans to prominently install the glass in a civil war gallery at the de Young Museum by July 1, “to symbolically center the problem of the slavery system that has historically been minimized and marginalized by museums”.

Says auctioneer Andrew Brunk, “There’s no question that institutions are driving this market right now.” He described the demand for glasses with Drake’s script – anything from a word to short but expressive poetry – as particularly strong.

These inscriptions help tell the story of David Drake when much biographical information is missing. Judging from the census records, Drake was likely born in 1801 and died in the 1870s. Auction records show that he had several enslavers in the Edgefield area and that it was used at least once as collateral for a loan. A voting register shows that after emancipation he took the name Drake and took the surname of its first owner. But his biography still has major gaps. It is not clear who trained him on the potter’s wheel. (He also made pots by hand using the coil technique.) And there is no consensus on how he learned to read and write.

What is known is that he made many stoneware pots for sale, some as large as 40 gallons, which demonstrated his physical strength and virtuosity with clay and signed his name “Dave” on more than 100. He wrote verses or sayings about at. at least 40 who survived.

Together, these so-called poetry jugs serve as a kind of diary that offers a different voice than the slave narratives that dominated black literature of the time. Some, like the glass recently acquired by the Met or the one in the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1997, Describe the function of the pots or brag about the amount of beef or pork they could hold. Others share religious messages or jokes. One poem from 1857 says: “I made this jar for cash – / although it is called – lucre trash.” Another, dated 1854, says: “Lm says this handle / will crack.” Scholars have found that the initials refer to one of its owners, Lewis Miles, who ran the Stony Bluff Manufactory and made ceramics using slave labor. And in the manufacturer’s ultimate reprimand, the handle remains intact to this day.

Other verses can be read against the political upheavals of the time. “I made this jar entirely out of a cross / If you do not repent, you will be lost” was dated May 3rd, 1862, about a year after the beginning of the civil war.

The most heartbreaking inscription begins, “I wonder where my whole relationship is.” The jar in the Greenville County Museum of Art in South Carolina is dated August 16, 1857, several years after an enslaved woman in his household named Lydia and hers Both sons were sent to Louisiana, according to Leonard Todd’s 2008 book, Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave. It is not known whether Lydia was his wife.

Although Todd’s book has received praise for its original research, it has also been criticized for frequent speculation favoring Drake’s enslavers – some of whom were Todd’s ancestors. For example, Todd told a story that has been passed down for generations, but is discussed by experts, that Drake lost a leg one night after falling asleep on the train tracks from drinking too much.

Jason Young, an associate professor of history at the University of Michigan who specializes in African American religion and culture, finds this account unreliable. “What we do know about slavery and disability is that there have been many enslaved Africans who have either been handicapped by the dangerous working conditions they lived in or because it has been a popular form of punishment in response to some having a foot or a leg to take offense, “Young said in an interview.

He has teamed up with Adrienne Spinozzi, an assistant research curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Ethan Lasser, director of the Art of the Americas department at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, for a traveling exhibition on the heritage of the African. to organize American potters from Edgefield showing about a dozen glasses by Drake, which will open at the Met in September 2022. While smaller museums in the south, including the Charleston Museum and the Greenville County Museum of Art, have long owned Drake’s pottery, the upcoming show will be the first of its kind in New York and Boston.

Lasser learned about Drake’s work in 2010 when he organized To Speculate Darkly, an exhibition by Chicago artist Theaster Gates at the Milwaukee Museum of Art, inspired by Drake’s ceramics. Frustrated by Todd’s sometimes upbeat tales, Gates tried to “amplify” Drake’s work with, as the artist put it, his own pots and music, including a hymn Gates composed for a gospel choir. (One of Gates’ works had the decidedly un-sunny saying: “Bitch, I Made this Pot.”)

Lasser said one goal of the new show is to avoid speculation about the potter’s life. “One of the things we strongly oppose is reading his work for the benevolence of his enslaved, provided his owner has taught him to write or has given him permission,” he said. “There is a danger that his story will become a tonic against the cruelty of slavery.”

Another goal of the exhibit is to understand how the use of slave labor supported the brisk, high-volume business of 19th-century ceramic factories in the Edgefield area, known for its rich red and white clays and glossy, alkaline glazes. In 2011, archaeologists excavated a partially buried furnace there in a location known as Pottersville. They expected the furnace to be about 25 feet long. It turned out to be 105 meters.

“The discovery of a kiln this size has led us to rethink our understanding of Edgefield pottery,” said Spinozzi, curator of the Met. “It wasn’t a small operation in someone’s backyard, but a huge, human-engaging endeavor Scientists see it as a relatively rare example in the United States of “industrial slavery” that took place in industries such as mining or manufacturing household goods for consumption, compared to the more familiar agricultural model that of cotton and tobacco plantations connected is.

Spinozzi and her colleagues are currently investigating Drake’s contemporaries, including an enslaved potter named Harry who also signed his name on glasses. (The auction house Crocker Farm sold a glass signed by “Harry” from around 1840 to a private collector for US $ 120,000 in April.)

Most curators have renounced the nickname “Dave the Potter” in favor of David Drake. Burgard, the curator of the Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco, admitted that the surname “Drake” could also be problematic because it came from his first enslaved, but said that he “was the choice he was when he registered made for the choice and which is in the census ”. Records. It seems disrespectful to call him by his first name when the extinction of identity in slavery is so dire.

This biographical obliteration is one of the greatest challenges for museums that want to display the works of enslaved artists. Another is the art world’s long-standing contempt for everyday objects.

Dr. Tonya Matthews, executive director of the International African American Museum, said her museum plans to display Drake’s work alongside objects such as sweet grass baskets to “destroy this long-entrenched myth about enslaved people with no skills.”

Burgard, the curator of San Francisco, said Drake’s glasses are a strong argument for art museums to recognize the importance of functional and useful objects.

“If you don’t pay attention to these objects, you will never properly record the story of the artists, color artists, or enslaved artists because you have to look at what they ‘allow’ to do,” he said. “You have to look at pots, you have to look at quilts, you have to look at the beautiful ironwork on the balconies in New Orleans.

“How many buildings, furniture, and ceramic jugs have been built by people who have been enslaved? Probably millions, but nobody recorded their names. “

Where to see important David Drake earthenware ceramics

Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gallery 237.

Charleston The Charleston Museum, in the Museum’s First Hall.

Chicago Art Institute of Chicago to be installed this winter.

Greenville, SC Greenville County Museum of Art to see when it reopens this winter.

new York Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Wing, Gallery 762.

Philadelphia Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gallery 216.

San Francisco de Young Museum, Gallery 23, “Catination” glass on display from July 1st.

St. Louis Saint Louis Museum of Art, Gallery 336


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