slave artist


The speckled brown storage jar looks humble from afar, even homely—something you might find on a back porch in the South. Come closer and you see wild runs of alkaline glaze above and below the surface, and some revealing traces by an artist known as Dave the Potter or David Drake, who lived in South Carolina while being enslaved by various owners. Made powerful stone pottery in the Edgefield district. .

At the bottom of the pot are three marks that look like fingerprints, where someone – possibly Drake – dipped the pot into the glaze. A term runs across the shoulder that Drake has inscribed with a sharp stick or similar device: “catenation,” a variant of catenation, the state of being yoke or chained. As notable, experts say the jar is dated “April 12, 1836”, two years after South Carolina passed a specifically punitive anti-literacy law to prevent slaves from writing, calling this single word resistance or disobedience. An extraordinary work has been done. by Drake.

It’s not quite 15 inches tall, but the jar points to the artistic achievements of enslaved African Americans and their work continually being erased from America’s cultural institutions for nearly 300 years.

so when the jar went up sales in november At the Brunk auction in Asheville, NC, art museums across the country took note. The estimate was $40,000 to $60,000. But competing museums pushed the price up to $369,000 with a buyer’s premium, setting a world auction record for David Drake’s work and kicking off a year of major institutional purchases of his distinctive pottery.

In 2020, buyers included the Museum of Fine Arts of San Francisco, St. Louis Art Museum, Art Institute of Chicago and Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as more historically oriented International African American Museum, Currently under construction in Charleston, SC, at a time when museum leaders are highly motivated and heavily pressured to reconsider the racial prejudices built into their collections, receiving and showcasing Drake’s extraordinary work is the way to do so. provides a dramatic way, while also offering a window on the history of slavery.

Timothy Burgard, the curator in charge of American art at the Museum of Fine Arts, who made the winning bid on the “Catinization” jar, called these acquisitions a “turning point” in the stories the American Art Museum tells about slavery. He plans to set the jar prominently in a Civil War-era gallery. De Young Museum As of July 1, “symbolically centering the issue of the slavery system, which has historically been minimized and marginalized by museums.”

According to auctioneer Andrew Brunk, “there is no doubt that institutions are driving this market at the moment.” He described the demand for jars written by Drake—ranging from one word to short but expressive poems—particularly strong.

These inscriptions help tell the story of David Drake at a time when much biographical information is missing. Judging from census records, Drake was born in 1801 and died in the 1870s. Auction records show that he had many slaves in the Edgefield area, and was used at least once as collateral for loans. A ballot register indicates that he adopted the name Drake after emancipation, taking the surname of his first owner. But there are still big gaps in his biography. It is not clear who trained him at the potter’s wheel. (He also made utensils by hand using the coil technique.) And there is no consensus about how he learned to read and write.

Be aware that he had made many stoneware for sale, some as large as 40 gallons, who demonstrated his physical strength and virtuosity with clay and signed his name “Dave” on over 100. He wrote at least 40 verses or sayings that have survived.

Together these poetry-jars, as they are known, serve as diaries of sorts, offering a different voice than the slave tales that dominated black literature from this period. Some, like the jar recently acquired by the Met, or the jar owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1997, Describe the function of the utensils or brag about the amount of beef or pork. Others share religious messages or satire. An 1857 poem says: “I made this jar for cash – / However it’s called – flashy trash.” Another, dated 1854, says: “LM says it will handle/crack.” Scholars have established that the initials refer to one of their owners, Lewis Miles, who ran a Stony Bluff manufactory, making pottery using slave labor. And the handle remains intact even today in the final reproach of the producer.

Other verses can be read against the political turmoil of the time. “I, Made This Jar, All the Crosses / If, You Don’t Repent, You’ll Be Lost” About a Year into the Civil War, dated May 3, 1862.

The most heart-wrenching inscription begins, “I wonder where all my relationship is.” According to Leonard Todd, the jar at the Greenville County Museum of Art in South Carolina is dated August 16, 1857, several years after an enslaved woman named Lydia and her two sons were deported to Louisiana. 2008 book “Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave.” It is not known whether Lydia was his wife.

Praised for its original research, Todd’s book has also been criticized for frequent speculation, which cast Drake’s slaves—some of whom were Todd’s ancestors—in a favorable light. For example, Todd told a story, passed down for generations, but debated by experts, that Drake lost a leg after falling asleep on train tracks one night because he drank too much.

Jason Young, an associate professor of history at the University of Michigan specializing in African American religion and culture, finds this account unreliable. “What we do know about slavery and incapacity is that there were a large number of enslaved Africans who found themselves either incompetent through dangerous work arrangements or because it was a punishment for taking a leg or foot in response to some people. was a popular form of infringement,” Young said in an interview.

They have teamed up with Adrienne Spinozzi, an assistant research curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Ethan Lesser, head of the Art of the Americas, at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, to organize a traveling show on the heritage of African art. American Potters of Edgefield, which will contain about a dozen jars by Drake and will open at the Met in September 2022. While smaller museums in the south, among them Charleston Museum and Greenville County Museum of Art, long owned by Drake Pottery – the upcoming show will be the first of its kind in New York and Boston.

Lasser first learned of Drake’s work when he organized “To guess blindly,” A 2010 show inspired by Drake’s pottery by Chicago artist Theaster Gates at the Milwaukee Museum of Art. Frustrated by Todd’s sometimes cheesy narratives, Gates tried to “enhance” Drake’s work, as the artist did through his own pottery and music, including a hymn composed for a gospel choir. Gates was also involved. (One of Gates’s works certainly contained the unsung saying: “Bitch, I made this pot.”)

Lesser said that avoiding speculation about the potter’s life is one of the goals of the new show. He said, “One of the things we are trying to fight hard against is reading their work in terms of the generosity of their slaves, assuming that their master taught them to write or allowed them is.” “There is a risk that his story becomes a tonic for the brutality of slavery.”

Another objective of the exhibition is to understand how the use of slave labor supported the brisk, high-volume business of the 19th-century ceramics manufactory in the Edgefield area, which was characterized by its rich red and white clay and its lustrous, alkaline glazes. is celebrated for. In 2011, archaeologists excavated A partially buried kiln in Pottersville. He expected the kiln to be about 25 feet long. It turned out to be 105 feet.

“The discovery of a kiln on that scale has prompted us to rethink our understanding of Edgefield pottery,” said Met curator Spinozzi. “It was no small operation in someone’s backyard, but a huge undertaking, involving many people.” Scholars see this as a relatively rare example of “industrial slavery” in the United States, which occurred in industries such as mining or the manufacture of household goods for consumption, compared to the more familiar agricultural model involving cotton and tobacco plantations. .

Spinozzi and his colleagues are currently researching Drake’s contemporaries, including a slave potter named Harry, who also signed his name in the jar. (auction house crocker farm A circa 1840 jar sold signed by “Harry” in April for $120,000 For a private collector.)

Most curators have done away with the nickname “Dave the Potter” in favor of David Drake. Acknowledging that the nickname “Drake” could also be problematic because it comes from his first slave, Burgard, curator of the Museum of Fine Arts in San Francisco, said it was “a choice he made when registering to vote and It’s on the census record. It seems humiliating for anyone to call her by her first name when the erasure of identity in slavery is so gruesome.”

Erasing this biography is one of the biggest challenges facing museums that want to exhibit works by enslaved artists. Another is a longstanding art-world disdain for everyday functional objects.

Dr. Tonya Matthews, chief executive of the International African American Museum, said that her museum plans to showcase Drake’s work with items such as sweetgrass baskets to “resolve this long-confounded myth about slaves not having skill sets.” help to eliminate it.”

San Francisco curator Burgard said Drake’s jars make a strong case for fine arts museums to recognize the importance of functional and utilitarian objects.

“If you don’t pay attention to these objects, you will never be able to adequately accept the history of women artists, artists of color, or enslaved artists, because you have to look at what they were ‘allowed’ to make.” was,” he said. . “You have to look at the pottery, you have to look at the quilts, you have to look at the beautiful ironwork on the balconies in New Orleans.

“How many buildings, pieces of furniture, and ceramic jars did the enslaved people make? Maybe lakhs, but no one has registered his name.”


Where to see important stone pottery made by David Drake

Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gallery 237.

Charleston Charleston Museum in the first hall of the museum.

Chicago The Art Institute of Chicago, to be established this winter.

Greenville, SC The Greenville County Museum of Art, when it reopens this winter.

New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Wing, Gallery 762.

philadelphia Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gallery 216.

San Francisco De Young Museum, Gallery 23, “Catination” jar on view from July 1.

St. Louis St. Louis Museum of Art, Gallery 336



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