Pottery is made of earth, formed by hands, and transformed by fire. It represents dualities. It can be everyday vessels or beautiful sculpture. It can last for centuries or be broken by a careless bump. It is one of the things that made civilization possible, and something we barely notice. The exhibit “Figure and Form: African Ceramics from the Keith Achepohl Collection,” brings us something unusual in gallery offerings; unique, innovative, powerful pieces which are also humble, functional, and created by mostly anonymous, mostly female artisans.
An emeritus professor of printmaking from the University of Iowa, Keith Achepohl collected his first examples of African ceramics in Egypt in the mid-1970s, his choices based on the individual pieces rather than a plan to collect work of any particular type or region. He stresses that each piece has something that speaks, which makes it stand apart. At one time his collection contained nearly 100 pieces, but he has passed many of them to museums. The Hallie Ford exhibition features 17 pieces which were chosen to give viewers a sense of the variety of this work. The pottery presented in this show comes from different regions and different traditions, and ranges from fairly modern pieces created 30-50 years ago through 12th century works.
Achepohl describes the environment in which he first became aware of African ceramics as a time when African masks were getting a lot of attention, and becoming quite expensive. At the same time, the functional and ceremonial ceramic vessels from the same areas were largely unknown and possessed of striking beauty. He also points out that while galleries tend to be very focused on “named” artists, the creators of these pieces are almost completely anonymous, but have created compelling and powerful pieces of work that are both art and functional. The shapes of the pieces are in some ways dictated by their use. A vessel must hold what it is created to hold, while the altar pieces tend to be more sculptural. Tools and materials vary based partly on where the piece is from, as do firing techniques. Some of the forms are crude while others are refined and decoration ranges from minimal to ornate.
One of the elements that Achepohl loves about these pieces is that they are “necessary art.” Ceramics created for household and ritual use, storage of grain and water, and use in ceremonies, which are made personal and unique by the surface treatments, texture, and carving done by the individual artists. For Achepohl, the very humility of the pieces is part of their appeal. He points out that pottery is the “made of earth, as people are made of earth.” This theme is the thing he finds the most compelling about these pieces, the art of necessity; things that must be made to support daily life, but that people have taken the time, skill, and vision to also make into pieces of powerful art.