Arts and crafts from west africa: POTTERY

Töpfe einer Senufo-Frau für den Verkauf. Foto: Karl-Heinz Krieg, Niankorodougou (Region von Sindou, Burkina Faso) 1980

Numu-Töpferin fertigt ein Tongefäß. Foto: Karl-Heinz Krieg, Gbon (Region von Boundiali, Côte d’Ivoire), 1965

Numu-Töpferin fertigt ein Tongefäß. Foto: Karl-Heinz Krieg, Gbon (Region von Boundiali, Côte d’Ivoire), 1965

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Among the Senufo, iron working and wood carving are the activity of male Numu blacksmiths, while the casting of soft metals is carried out by the Loko brass casters. In contrast, the making of pottery is traditionally considered the work of women who were generally the wives of these male craftsmen. The women potters supplied their village with the necessary pottery for the various needs of everyday life and ritual purposes. 

Different pottery forms are shaped to serve as cooking pots, storage vessels, water containers, and eating bowls. When stacked and fitted into one another, large pots provided protection against insects and moisture and would also keep fabrics safely stored. Also, among the Senufo a large number of stacked pots in a household were a sign of a family’s wealth and prestige.

Manufacture of Pottery
There are only a few sites near lakes or rivers where clay suitable for making pottery is found. In addition, broken pottery shards were ground down and mixed with this clay to temper the body of the clay. Among the Senufo pottery, all its different forms are made by hand without the use of a ‘potter’s wheel’. Pots were built-up using coils of clay and at the outset would be worked over the spherical remains of an old pot applying clay and smoothing it by hand to shape the pot according to function. Decorations and patterns on the sides and shoulders of pottery were incised, carved or impressed using knotted fibres or wooden roulettes that were rolled over the surface. On pots of special ritual use, symbolic animal forms would be modelled on the surface. The choice of decoration was also the means whereby the potter-artist could identify her work among others.

The making of pottery takes place during the dry season when the female potters are not working in the fields tending crops. After the pots are formed they are placed in an old hut where they can slowly dry and harden in the shade before firing. The most senior potter in the village would determine when it was time for the firing of the pottery. The women would carry their pots to an area a short distance away from the village due to the fear of fire that might spread to the grass thatch covering their homes during a firing. It was also the place where fuel for the firing was kept. When ready to be fired, the pots were carefully stacked on a bed of firewood and then covered with dry twigs and additional smaller pieces of wood. This was overlaid with a layer of the old grass thatching saved from the huts after they had been recovered with new roofs. To better manage the temperature, the whole is covered with a layer of green grass that is added to or removed to control the supply of oxygen that regulated the temperature and ultimately the time of firing.

When it was determined that the pots had been sufficiently fired, and were now glowing with heat, they were taken from the fire with long iron hooks and placed into a basket of leaves and bark using the smoke to seal the pores of the pot. Afterwards, the pots were briefly returned to the fire burning off the remains of the bark and leaves to produce the beautiful, rich colors of the finished pots. The total firing process takes about 30 minutes and reaches temperatures up to 800 degrees.

Text: Karl-Heinz Krieg, 1980
From: Kunst und Kunsthandwerk aus Westafrika. Mit einem Vorwort von Dr. Klaus Volprecht, Leverkusen 1980
Translation: Daniel Mato, PhD