Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Face Jugs": Kongo pottery in the New World

Last night the PBS program History Detectives had a very interesting program about a "face jug" found in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. While detectives Gwendolyn Wright and Tufuku Zuberi were not able to ascertain precisely how this jug made it to the City of Brotherly Love, they were able to trace it to one of the last American shipments of African slaves.

On the evening of November 28, 1858 the Wanderer docked at Jekyl Island, Georgia. Its cargo hold contained 409 men, women and children - the survivors of the 487 slaves purchased in Benguela, a river port in modern-day Angola. A number of these slaves wound up laboring in the pottery industry in Edgefield, South Carolina. There they became famous for their alkaline-glazed stoneware and for their grimacing, wide-eyed face jugs.

Among the people Dr. Zuberi interviewed was Jim McDowell, an African-American potter who makes contemporary face jugs (also known as "ugly jugs," since they, like medieval gargoyles, are supposed to be ugly enough to scare the devil).  Dr. Mark Newell of the Georgia Archaeological Institute pointed out the similarities between these jugs and Kongolese minkisi, power objects which provided homes for spirits.

It is especially noteworthy that the Georgetown jug was discovered while the present owner's grandfather was digging a ditch. These jugs were frequently buried at the threshold of a home to protect the family against evil. Compare this to the baka of Haitian Vodou, a guardian spirit created by a process which involves burying sacred objects and animals. Mr. McDowell also noted that these jugs were used to mark burial sites. Those who have read Robert Farris Thompson will recognize similar Kongo-inspired burial decorations found on African-American gravesites. And while Edgefield is particularly famous for their face jugs, the cover of John Burrison's Brothers in Clay: the Story of Georgia Folk Pottery suggests that this art form could be found throughout the slaveholding United States.

Brothers in Clay: The Story of Georgia Folk Pottery

This was one of the most interesting installments yet on a consistently interesting program, and is well worth a viewing.