“Face Jugs” at the Milwaukee Art Museum
New research sheds light on enigmatic vessels.
While the documented cultural legacy of African-Americans during slavery includes spirituals and folk tales, not much is known about the slave art of this brutal period. Slaves produced many types of craft items for their owners, such as quilts, baskets and ceramics. But it’s only been recently that other objects—made by slaves for themselves—have been researched in a more rigorous way. Often, these pieces were coded with messages understood by the African-American community but hidden from white society.
An exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum sheds new light on one example of slave art in “Face Jugs: Art and Ritual in 19th-Century South Carolina.”
Curated in collaboration with the Wisconsin-based Chipstone Foundation, the show features 23 face jugs. All have wide eyes and grimacing mouths with teeth bared. To modern eyes, the faces might seem cartoonish. But curator Claudia Mooney of Chipstone says the crudeness was intentional. The style can be deceptive, for the potters were masters of their craft. Each jug consists of a stoneware body as well as eyes and teeth made of kaolin (white clay used in porcelain). According to Mooney, “to be able to use both kaolin and stoneware together, you need to be a pretty good potter because they shrink at different rates when fired.”
Recent archaeological evidence dates face-jug fragments found at Edgefield kiln sites to between 1860 and 1880. Apparently, after that time, African-Americans stopped making these vessels and white potters appropriated the forms—often with racist overtones. But the early pots were not conceived as denigrating objects or decorative pieces. Rather, clues point to ritualistic functions grounded in African cultural traditions.
Early on, scholars recognized the face jugs as “looking African” yet didn’t specify what that meant. The kaolin eyes and teeth are significant: According to Mooney, “kaolin is considered a magical material in almost every West African culture.” It’s a medium that helped diviners communicate with the spirit world.
Also significant is the 1858 arrival in Edgefield of 100 Kongolese smuggled from Africa (50 years after the trans-Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in the U.S.). Many were put to work in the Edgefield potteries. The face jugs appeared shortly after the arrival of the Kongolese, suggesting their influence. Archaeologists have also unearthed the remains of small African-style kilns in the slave quarters, further pointing to a direct African connection.
“We think that the face jug is in fact a vessel for conjure,” Mooney says. In the 1800s, many African-Americans held a widespread belief in “conjure” as a protection from harm—or sometimes the infliction of it. This practice involved placing magical materials inside a container, such as a bag or a vessel, which would then act as a conduit to the spiritual world. Conjure was often used to cause blindness, and the word pofu, which is Kongolese for blind, is inscribed on one of the face pots.
New research into the face jugs continues. After the exhibition closes on August 5, scientists will further analyze the 23 pots, documenting the material properties of the clays and glazes, and any residue inside each vessel. “It’s like a puzzle or a mystery where you keep finding all these little pieces,” Mooney says, “and you can start putting it together to re-create the story which, unfortunately, wasn’t passed down to us.”
“Face Jugs” is on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum through August 5.