In title photo and above, pot purchased from Dilling market, South Kordofan, early 1980s, personal collection. Nuba pot making techniques, their decoration and motifs have demonstrated age-old continuity.
Above and below, screenshots from the short Youtube Arabic documentary below (English translation available on request) on Sudanese pottery, its regional diversity and modern re-interpretations of traditional forms.
Giving Form to Clay; Women Potters in Sudan 2
“Clay has always allowed me to reflect on what it is to be human.” Magdalene Odundo speaking on her exhibition, The Journey of Things https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7k1vWK6EWXk&feature=share.
In this, the second of three posts on Women Potters in Sudan, I highlight aspects of the symbolic power of pottery in Sudan. My next post, Gendered Magic, explores gender taboos surrounding pottery making and offers accounts of three Sudanese women potters and their work. I begin with a glimpse into women’s key role in the vanishing craft of pottery making in Sudan, drawing on recent research into pottery making in Sudan. See Giving Form to Clay Sudan’s Women Potters for an introduction to this field and colonial accounts and photographs of women potters in the Nuba Mountains and Darfur.
This blogpost merely scratches the surface of a fascinating subject and I would welcome any insights and comments on rituals, customs and techniques associated with pottery making, and in particular pottery making by women in Sudan.
Below, an Abri potter, Northern Province, turning a zir in early 1980s.
“The pattern of village pottery-making in the Ad-Dabba Bend is similar to that observed in Upper Egypt in the 1920s. Winifred S.Blackman’s sentence for her Fellahin of Upper Egypt characterized both Middle Nile and Upper Egypt pottery making as follows: When no wheel is employed the potters may be men or women, but the wheel is used only by men.”
Living with the Past in Modern Sudanese Village Traditional Pottery Production in the Ad-Dabba Bend of the Nile. (see below)
Giving Form to Clay 2 Women Potters in Sudan From Function to Symbol
Setting the Scene
A Vanishing Craft; A Woman’s Skill and Livelihood
See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52HKSwkI1hs&feature=share for a fascinating visual record of West African Pottery Forming and Firing, skills dominated by women.
In Living with the Past in Modern Sudanese Village Traditional Pottery Production in the Ad-Dabba Bend of the Nile, researchers Aneto Cedro and Bogdan Zurawski explore patterns of gendered ceramic production among villages near Ad-Dabba and the pottery workshop industry of Ad-Dabba itself. The article (link below) is open access and richly illustrated with photographs of the pottery-making process and the wide range of vessels they produce.
The authors are acutely aware they are recording the skills and techniques of a vanishing art:
“Traditional pottery making is becoming an extinct craft all across Africa…” . Reporting on the women potters from the right bank village of Al-Qadār, near Old Dongola, the researchers note that “the last ones, ‘Aziza Mabruuk and Halima Sa’ad passed away less than ten years ago, at the age of eighty. Although their mothers and grandmothers were making pottery they left nobody who might continue their craft.
The art of hand making pottery objects for local needs belonged in the past to the everyday activities for women in most of the localities within the researched area. Pottery making was always regarded as a female occupation in Al-Qadār. In the case of above mentioned ‘Aziza and Halima, it was their main occupation and made them financially independent from their husbands, who hardly made ends meet working in the field.”
Villagers informing the researchers on the women potters of Al-Qadār recalled that –
“With time, they gained widespread renown and people from other villages were coming to their workshop to purchase their pots. They produced the traditional water jugs but also wide, round vessels called kubīq used in the watering of domestic animals and kneading the dough at home as well as for keeping dates for Ramadan, the universally used censers and qullas, large wide dishes called kabarūs and the dukka (in Sudanese Arabic doka) vessel for preparing kisra.”
The researchers go on to note –
“In Tanqasī also active as a woman-potter was Al-‘Izqīna, who made small azyār, qulal, incense burners, cooking pots (qidr, qidra) and until 1950 pots called kantūs for preparing the traditional dish mulāh or keeping milk. She fired the pottery in a small kiln mound by using manure as fuel. After she died at the beginning of the 1960s nobody continued the production.”
More on the skills of the remarkable women potters of these villages in my next post.
In Modern and Ancient Pottery Traditions in the el-Zuma And Karima Region in Sudan: An Introduction to Comparative Studies (Pots Project), researchers Ewa Czyzewska-Zalewska and Zofia Kowarska seek insights into ancient pottery making techniques by observing potters still using traditional techniques today. They too are struck by the fact that they are privileged witnesses to:
“a dying profession with fewer and fewer traditional potters still using their skills. Easier and more profitable jobs are replacing the old handcrafting skills and the range of products available on the market is squeezing out traditional clay pottery. ……..It is the last opportunity to observe at work the traditional potters who have been living on this land for generations and to learn where and how they acquired their pottery-making skills.”
This is a cultural post for Women’s Education Partnership.
From Function to Symbol
From Function to Symbol; The Symbolic Power of Pottery
Below, the carefully placed pots in an ancient tomb revealed by flooding in the Sennar region under colonial rule. (Source: Three Burials in Sennar District by A.J.Arkell, Sudan Notes and Records,Volume 17, No 1, 1934. The meaning of the positioning of the pots – some upright, some inverted in ancient graves – is still a matter of debate.
“Pottery is a way for a culture to think about itself.” Olivier P. Gosselain, In Pots We Trust, The Processing of Clay and Symbols in Sub-Saharan Africa.
For the great contemporary Anglo-Kenyan potter, Madgalene Odundo, the infinite suppleness and flexibility of the human form finds constant echo in malleability of clay she works. And it is inevitable perhaps that parallels between the human body and the sculpting of clay emerged so early on in human thinking. Early Egyptian hieroglyphs record the same symbols for both pot and womb and the delivery of a vessel unscathed through firing finds ritual resonances, in some African cultures, with human birth and the newborn child. The tattooed “skins” of pot surfaces, their “bellies” and “wombs” both express human physicality and enclose spaces anthropologists have read as “receptacles for the spirit”.
Prosaic and yet prodigious – imbued with power even to mediate between the community of the living and their dead, pottery use and ritual is embedded in ancient but enduring universal rites of passage – birth, coming of age, loss, change and death. The transforming of clay becomes a metaphor for human physical transformations and the reworking of relationships within the community in the face of change. Randi Haaland, in Food, Pots and Gender, sees the earliest pots; those in which food is cooked and served, as elements of a female coded process of transformation from “a natural to a cultural object” and “charged with meaning”. “Among the Yoruba of Nigeria the daughter of a potter who wants to leave her husband may carry all the vessels that she received as marriage gifts except her water and fire pots. These represent stability and permanence and she would move endlessly from one matrimonial home to another should she displace either of them.”(Gosselain, In Pots WeTrust)
Pottery vessels enclose, protect, seal, transform, leak, shatter, are shattered and dissolve to dust. In Cameroon, according to Gosselain, sherds of ceremonial pot that has been broken accidentally are brought to the blacksmith who grinds them and gives them back to his wife, the potter, who will make a new container. Gosselain also records the use of temper made from the eating bowls of a deceased woman among the Gurensi potters of Ghana, interpreting the recycling of these sherds as a preserving and renewing of links between the woman, her family and the Earth.
The shattering of pots, their sherds and dust take on vast symbolic and ritualistic power. Broken pots are placed like pillows beneath the heads of the deceased; vessels are smashed when a man dies and the sherds scattered to mingle with earth in or above his tomb. Cooking vessels accompany the dead, some intact, some carefully pierced through the base in an infinite overlaying of ritual and metaphor symbolizing rupture, transformation, death and permanence.
A Sudan English teacher based near Kadugli in the 1980s, Henry Iles, recalls:
“ I was told that when the men left with the cattle to find grass after the rains, the young women left in the village repaired or sometimes made huts. The older women made pots and some of the older men didn’t go out with the cattle so helped with the heavy iron wood crossbeams of the hut. There seemed to be a special pot which was put at the head on a grave with the person’s beads when they died. I saw several when I walked out to the more remote villages. I drew one of the graves as I found it poignant. Most graves I saw were walking distance from Kadugli…..I was told they were the water pots – not those for storing but ones carried on the head between home and the wells.”
My thanks to Henry, and Sudan English Teachers Facebook Group for this account.
In The Nuba Proper of Southern Kordofan , Sudan Notes and records, Volume 15, 1932, D.Hawksworth records the rituals associated with the death of a king and the role of pottery in enclosing regal insignia:
Below, diagrams of grave pottery decoration from A.J.Arkell’s report above. Ancient mummified remains have revealed skin tattoo and scarification echoed in the clay “skin” of the pots and female figurines accompanying the deceased (see Uffe Steffensen, The Ritual Use of Mortuary Pottery in Ancient Nubia) and possibly “illustrating the social identity of a pot as if it were a person.” (Randi Haaland) Perhaps then it is not surprising that plant species and oils often found in pottery coatings are also used by healers for skin diseases in some parts of Africa. (Olivier Gosselain)
Recently the power of pottery vessels to enclose and seal has gained greater focus among archeologists and anthropologists and prompted a reconsideration of pot burials – a custom widespread in ancient Sudan and previously believed to have been reserved for the poor or those of low status. Perhaps enclosing the deceased in an impervious pottery vessel, one with significance in having been used for cooking, was a powerful mark of respect; an honouring and an insurance of rebirth.
Dr Azhari Mustafa Sadig, in his paper Individuals and Families: Traditions of Burials in the Sudanese Neolithic 5000-3000BC, records the earliest examples of pot burial, reserved for children under six, in the Late Neolithic el-Kadada sites. The children were buried inside or near houses, not in cemeteries, which appear to have been reserved for adults. “The pottery vessels appear to have been previously used – possibly cooking vessels – and are sometimes broken (urns have a pierced base.)”, he explains. There is a delicacy and care in the placing of other sacred objects within the burial pot – offerings which sometimes also included ostrich eggs, grinding stones set inside and around the vessel, and other pots placed with the infant.
And Dr Azhari goes on to suggest “that the enclosure of an infant – one who had not yet grown to the age of initiation into adolescence – in the vase could be symbolic of the enclosure of the individual in the womb.” He recalls that pot burials for stillborn infants are still used by some communities in northern Sudan. He explains that the Sudanese view the pot “as a metaphor for the ideal womb, protective and watertight” – and one which would never miscarry. In Megauda village near Old Dongola, he was informed, new-born dead infants are placed within qadus and buried near the family home.
Nigel Barley, Smashing Pots, Feats of Clay from Africa, quoting research by Janice Boddy in the early 1980s, emphasizes pottery’s role in the enclosing of spaces; physical, social and cultural. Boddy had noted that Sudanese made a distinction between porous water vessels that sweat (such as the water cooling zir) and the totally sealed gulla (see above) “in which the batter of unleavened bread is soaked. A miscarried foetus is buried in a gulla vessel inside the house ie metaphorically outside the body but not in the outside world.”
In my next post, I explore how symbolism, the gendered crafting and use of pottery and the lives of women potters converge in a way colonial observers described as “magical elements still lingering about the potter’s craft”.
If you are interested in pottery, you might enjoy The Scorpion and The Coffee Pot