University of South Carolina

What’s behind the mask?

By Frenche` Brewer, brewer4@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-3691

When a New York luxury yacht secretly retrofitted as a slave ship anchored at Jekyll Island off the Georgia coast in 1858, the more than 400 slaves from the Congo started a chain of events that would serve as a catalyst in the rise of the ceramic face jug tradition in South Carolina. More than 100 of them were sent to Edgefield, S.C., to work at the potteries.

But those 19th-century African-Americans found creative ways to hold on to their native customs and beliefs through hidden meanings in their songs, stories and objects like the face jugs. That these face vessels were made at all is a testament to the ingenuity of the slaves who had no legal or civil rights, nor were they typically permitted to freely express themselves.

“I started collecting Edgefield pottery because of both its beauty and historical significance,” said Jim Witkowski, a member of the McKissick Museum Advisory Council and a face jugs collector. “These 19th-century face vessels are very important, tangible pieces of S.C. history, as well as being amazing American ceramic art objects.”

For the first time in nearly 30 years a collection of this African-American pottery is on exhibit. Objects in the show come from private and public collections, including the University of South Carolina’s McKissick Museum, which is co-hosting the exhibit until Dec. 16.Face Jugs: African-American Art and Ritual in 19th-Century South Carolina,” is a masterworks show celebrating the aesthetic power of these objects and suggesting new consideration of their uses and cultural meanings.

Today, these expressive faces featuring bulging eyes and bared teeth can seem mysterious to modern-day viewers.

Several characteristics found on Edgefield face vessels strongly suggest a link to the art of conjuring. The white eyes and teeth were made from fine kaolin clay, a material long considered to possess magical powers in West Africa. Kaolin was placed inside of and rubbed onto nkisi, the name for an object that inhabits a spirit,to activate them.

Diviners also rubbed white clay around their eyes and mouths. The kaolin eyes and teeth may have functioned in a similar way on the vessels. The sharpened teeth found on some of the face vessels mirror African sculpture. At least one example has been found with contents suggesting a link to the art of conjuring. While the ritualistic use of face vessels in Edgefield can’t be proven, there’s enough evidence suggesting they were more than just racially stereotypical vessels or amusing sculptural forms. 

Why do they look the way they do? What did they mean in their own time? How were they used? These questions and more are explored in the exhibition and an upcoming symposium. 

A symposium, “Unmasking the Mysteries of Face Jugs,” is set for Dec. 7-9. Details of the symposium sessions and panelists can be found here.

“We are grateful to be partnering with the Columbia Museum of Art to bring to South Carolina an exhibit focused on 19th-century face jugs from the Edgefield District that surely will spark lively conversations about what recent research reveals about these visually compelling objects,” said Jane Przybysz, McKissick executive director.

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Posted: 12/05/12 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 12/06/12 @ 9:09 AM | Permalink