Friday, December 5, 2008


The art of African Pottery is rich and diverse
Photo by Brian McMorrow

Pottery has a long history in Africa and is one of the oldest arts. Pots are usually made by women. Though cheap and functional, African pots combine utility with great beauty. The procedure for making pots vary within the different communities that span the continent. The process of pottery making in Africa begins with the mining and preparation of the clay and mixing it with water.

Women Mining Clay
Photos by Prof. Christopher Roy

Temper or inert matter is then added to the clay mixture so as to reduce plasticity and to decrease shrinkage of pottery by replacing clay molecules, which contain water that shrink during drying and firing.

Photos by Prof. Christopher Roy

Temper includes finely chopped straw, dried animal dung pounded into a powder, and the chaff left when rice or millet is winnowed to prepare it for cooking, sand, river pebbles, shards of old pottery which have been reduced to a find powder. Tempers are kneaded into the fresh clay in amounts that vary. Generally, the result is a clay body with thirty to fifty percent temper material.

Photos by Mjengwa

Starting with a mass of clay, most potters work by punching a hole in the center, and pulling the clay apart to give a vessel shape. Some flatten a clay shape over a convex mold and build up a vessel with coils. The potter’s wheel is uncommon in Africa. When they are ready for firing, a few large pots and many small ones are stacked together. Then they are wood fired for about three hours at relatively low temperatures. Some communities use pits and kilns.

Photos by Prof. Christopher Roy

Pre-firing decoration is generally permanent and will survive handling and extensive use of the pot. In contrast, post-firing decoration, such as painting or colored washes, never becomes an integral part of the pot and will eventually wear off the surface.

Photos by Prof. Christopher Roy

Pre-firing decoration is applied at different stages in the drying process, after the completion of the basic shape of the pot and before the firing. Simple decorations include ones incised into the damp clay with a sharp blade or comb-like tool, impressed with a stamp made for example from split seed pods or shells, or rolled with a roulette made from a dried corn cob from which the kernels have been removed. Pre-firing also helps to drive the last molecules of absorbed water between the clay particles.

Here a potter of the Konate family in the village of Ouri in Burkina Faso prepares to fire large jars that will be used for brewing millet beer.
Photos by Prof. Christopher Roy

To pre-fire larger pots, they are turned rim downward on three large stones which keep them off the ground. A small fire is built beneath each pot to complete the drying process. When the pots are sufficiently dry, they are stacked with others for the final firing. The final firing must be begun before the pots have cooled from the pre-firing. If pottery is allowed to cool after the pre-firing, it will re-absorb moisture from the atmosphere and will crack during the final firing. Pre- firing is usually not necessary in the dry savanna where the lack of humidity permits more complete drying of the pottery before firing.

Photos by Prof. Christopher Roy


The kiln consists of a low, circular, mud brick wall, with pierced small holes on the base of the which provides air for the firing. Some kilns also have one or more larger holes that permit the addition of fuel during the course of the firing.

A thick layer of fuel is laid over the bottom of the kiln. Then, the dry pottery, interspersed with additional fuel, is piled on top which is then covered with large pieces of broken pottery that helps retain some heat and protect the pottery from direct contact with cool air. The kiln is lit from the bottom.

The duration of African firings is very short when compared to the technically complex and lengthy firings of European, American, and Oriental potters.

Once pottery has been fired its basic shape cannot be altered.
Photos by Prof. Christopher Roy


Text on Pottery Provided by Prof. Christopher Roy Of the University of Iowa
Short Film on African Pottery By Prof. Christopher Roy
African Films By Prof. Christopher Roy


Pottery village - Mali West Africa

"African Pottery Techniques
This DVD includes seven short videos that explain each of the five forming techniques used by potters in Africa. This high-quality video was filmed in Burkina Faso and Ghana, West Africa in 2001-2 by Christopher D. Roy, Professor of art history at the University of Iowa. Click here
DVD Trailer Streaming video trailer


Anonymous said...

This is an amazing site, it helped me so much will my reasearch and I love the pictures too. Thank you!!!

Anonymous said...

it's a great site but it would be even better if you added more about the women who make most of the pots. Amazing photos!

Anonymous said...

luv the site but plz plz plz could you add paragraghs abot them coz need them 4 hmewok ta