African pottery is not only a generally widespread craft but at the same time an important field of artistic expression still present in the life of the peoples of West Africa. Traditional pottery continues to have an important role in both rural and urban areas where, despite contemporary, industrially designed containers, vessels and other clay utensils, produced in the same way over several thousand years, are made. The traditional production of ceramics in the vast area South of the Sahara involves hand-modelled clay without the use of a potter’s wheel.
The Museum of African Art ceramics collection includes typical examples of traditional West African hand-shaped pottery, without the use of a potter’s wheel. Across Africa, ceramics are modelled using three techniques: modelling from a single piece of clay, modelling based on the coil method, that is, spiral clay piling, and modelling clay using a readymade mold.
Regardless the technique employed containers are decorated using simple, most often geometric patterns, achieved by incising, impressing and scratching the moist, outer surface of the vessel. This simple ornamentation characteristically appears primarily on containers intended for everyday use; cult pottery has more elaborate decorations. Relief ornamentation mainly occurs as anthropomorphic and zoomorphic motifs, or in the form of sculpted spiky and berry-like decorations, drawn from the clay mass of the vessel.
Jugs from Mali and terracotta’s of the Ashanti people from Ghana made for ritual purposes, demonstrating outstanding modelling and ornamentation, are the most important segment of the Museum ceramics collection. As far as everyday objects are concerned, the Museum’s collection includes black pottery used at mealtimes, bowls and dishes, kilns for cooking and baking food, pans for baking bread, jars and jugs for water.