Dave the Potter inscribed the word “concatenation” and the date, 12th June 1834, in elegant cursive writing onto the earliest known clay pot he moulded. “Concatenation” means things linked together to create an effect, and Dave, an enslaved artisan, etched it into this monumental storage jar around the time that South Carolina passed an anti-literacy law directed at slaves. This master potter’s evident command of the written word and its simultaneous prohibition seem—through his enigmatic inscription—linked.
“Is he responding to these strict laws that are passing?” asks Adrienne Spinozzi, the co-curator of the travelling exhibition Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina, which opens at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art this month before continuing to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the University of Michigan Museum of Art, and Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. “He knows what’s happening in the community, he can read, and is this a response?”
The vessel is one of many that Dave subversively engraved with words, poems and, as proof of his skill, his name. Also known as David Drake, he was part of a cohort of enslaved African American potters working in Old Edgefield in the lead-up to the Civil War.
Old Edgefield was a centre for stoneware production because of its ample natural and human resources. The region’s rich clay deposits had been used for centuries, and enslaved labourers did the hard work of preparing clay, shaping vessels, decorating, glazing, collecting fuel for the firing, constructing and overseeing the kilns, and transporting the finished works.
When not producing alkaline-glazed stoneware, the potters made objects for themselves. Hear Me Now will include vessels with faces (sometimes referred to as “voodoo jugs” and “grotesques”), which had spiritual value likely related to African traditions.
The show will also include works by contemporary Black artists such as Simone Leigh, Theaster Gates and Woody De Othello, who have responded directly to the Edgefield potters. Gates had a 2010 show at the Milwaukee Art Museum exploring Dave Drake’s legacy, and Leigh’s recent work at the Venice Biennale looked to Edgefield. “The act of signing his work really launched Dave into history,” Leigh says. “I’m excited by Black artists who did the work no matter what and claimed space for authorship.”
Spinozzi and her co-curators were left amazed by the minimal protection for the remaining materials at Edgefield that have yet to be excavated and studied. “The amount of information that’s just lying in and on top of the ground—it’s overwhelming,” Spinozzi says. “We hope that this show and project bring attention to these sites.”
• Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 9 September-5 February 2023