ExhibitionsHear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina
Past Exhibition

Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina

February 16 – May 12, 2024



Members and Museum Pass: Free
Not-Yet-Members: $18.50

This exhibition tells the story of the enslaved potters of Old Edgefield District, a rural area on the western edge of South Carolina famous for its natural clays. While many associate labor of the enslaved with staple crops like cotton and tobacco, historians describe Old Edgefield as the site of “industrial slavery.” For roughly fifty years before emancipation and the end of the Civil War, the Black potters of Old Edgefield crafted stoneware storage vessels later sold to neighboring plantations. Despite their beauty and expert craftsmanship, these vessels were made under duress.

Edgefield stoneware was a staple of life across South Carolina and parts of Georgia and known for its affordable prices, durability, and glassy, impervious glaze. By the 1840s, multiple potteries served the growing population, producing tens of thousands of vessels per year. Enslaved African Americans led all aspects of this labor-intensive industry. Their knowledge, creativity, and skill stand at the heart of this exhibition, which seeks to honor their work and legacy.

Hear Me Now also links the past to the present with work by leading contemporary Black artists who have responded to or whose practice connects with the Edgefield story, including Theaster Gates, Adebunmi Gbadebo, Simone Leigh, and Woody De Othello. Hear Me Now is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, with support from the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Henry Luce Foundation.

I’m excited by the work of Black artists who did the work no matter what and claimed space.

—Simone Leigh

Woody De Othello

American, born 1991
Secrets Safe, 2022
Ceramic, glaze, and wood
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with funds from Dwayne Majors and Belinda Stanley-Majors, the Decorative Arts Acquisition Trust, Gregor Turk and Murphy Townsend, Jane and Clay Jackson, and Friends of African American Art, 2023.8

Using clay to explore his ancestry, Woody De Othello’s work contends with the Edgefield face jug tradition present in this exhibition. Objects like Secrets Safe explore the complexity of contemporary uses of clay by artists of the African diaspora. This work may be understood as a contemporary nkisi—loosely translated as an object containing spiritual forces—and with its variously sized ears, it poignantly communicates to us. Are we prepared to listen?

2023.8 De Othello Secrets Safe O4

Dave (later recorded as David Drake)

American, ca. 1801–1870s
Enslaved at Stony Bluff Manufactory (ca. 1848–1867)
Jar, 1858
Alkaline-glazed stoneware
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with funds from the Decorative Arts Acquisition Endowment, 1988.85

Dave begins at least four of his surviving inscribed vessels, including this one, with the bold claim of agency and authorship, “I made.” He also attests to the durability of his creation, which will “never-never rott,” and includes fifteen dots that denote the jar’s capacity in gallons. Dave turned many vessels on a potter’s wheel, but the undulations on the surface of this jar suggest that he made it using a turn-and-coil method. This hybrid process involves turning the pot’s base on a wheel and then adding separately made coils of clay, and he used this method to create his largest vessels of the late 1850s, including some that could hold up to forty gallons.

1988.85 Drake Scan From Ct O4

Adebunmi Gbadebo

American, born 1992
K. S., 2021
True Blue Plantation cemetery soil and human locs from Aaron Wilson Watson, Kelsey Jackson, and Cheryl Person
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection and The Wornick Fund for Contemporary Craft

Adebunmi Gbadebo’s ceramics raise questions about the memories embedded in clay. “Could I make work from the very land that my ancestors were enslaved on?” the artist asked after traveling to the former True Blue Plantation in Fort Motte, South Carolina, where her family was forced to cultivate rice and indigo. Gbadebo collected material for her sculpture at a historic burial ground on the plantation, turning the earth that ran through the hands of her ancestors into vessels that commemorate the history of her family members and their connection to the land.

Smep004 Ia 20211128 38a6338 O4

___________ Maker(s) once known

Face Jug, ca. 1850–1880
Alkaline-glazed stoneware with kaolin
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund, Charles H. Bayley Fund, and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection, 2011

Known as face vessels, the jugs, cups, and pitchers in this exhibition, like the vessel pictured here, were powerful spiritual objects made by the Edgefield potters for their own use. The functions and meanings of face vessels in the African American community were likely multiple and varied: used as whimsies, receptacles for water or alcoholic spirits, deeper spiritual or religious purposes, or even for burial and funerary rituals. Their emergence coincides roughly with the 1858 arrival of the Wanderer, a slave ship illegally transporting more than four hundred captive Africans, some fifty years after the transatlantic slave trade had been outlawed in the United States.

Face Jug, ca. 1850–1880

___________ Maker(s) once known

Likely enslaved at Phoenix Stone Ware Factory (ca. 1840) and
Attributed to Thomas M. Chandler, Jr.
American, 1810–1854
Watercooler, ca. 1840
Alkaline-glazed stoneware with iron and kaolin slip
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase in honor of Audrey Shilt, President of the Members Guild, 1996–1997, with funds from the Decorative Arts Acquisition Endowment and Decorative Arts Acquisition Trust, 1996.132

This object stands apart for its striking decoration. A Black man and woman in fancy dress make a toast. Below, a nursing hog faces off against a two-handled pot evocative of this watercooler. Little is known about this object, and the significance of the imagery is not clear. Some interpret it as a wedding scene, while others read the pot as a presentation piece, intended to showcase the skill of the potters at the short-lived Phoenix Factory.

Watercooler, ca. 1840

Member of the Drake Family

Thomaston, Upson County, Georgia
Bible Scenes Quilt, ca. 1900
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with funds from the Decorative Arts Acquisition Endowment, 1995.82

Pictorial quilts functioned as bed covers and as a means for disseminating didactic lessons. Pieced together from repurposed scraps of fabric, the appliqué shapes in this quilt animate the scenes in red and blue: figures, letters, ladders, trees, snakes, and tools. The quilt depicts two biblical stories in opposite sections: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and the Crucifixion. Bible quilts like this are usually symbolic in nature and are creative interpretations of oral imagery passed down through generations. Dated circa 1900, this quilt was passed down in the Drake family of Thomaston, Georgia. Despite the similar name, it is unlikely that the maker of this quilt was related to the potter known as Dave.

Bible Scenes Quilt, ca. 1900

___________ Maker(s) once known

Likely enslaved at Collin Rhodes Factory (ca. 1846–1853)
Jug, ca. 1846–1853
Alkaline-glazed stoneware with kaolin and iron slip
Inscription: “C Rhodes / Maker / Joel / Ridgel”
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Virginia, Museum Purchase

This jug was made for Joel Ridgel or Ridgell, a prominent farmer in Lexington County. It depicts two ladies in fancy dress who were previously thought to represent Ridgel’s first and second wives, though the dark tones of the iron slip used for their skin suggests the maker intended to depict Black women.

Jug, ca. 1846–1853

Dave (later recorded as David Drake)

American, ca. 1801–1870s
Enslaved at Stony Bluff Manufactory (ca. 1848–1867)
Storage Jar, 1858
Alkaline-glazed stoneware
Collection of C. Philip and Corbett Toussaint

This jar was signed and dated by Dave on December 6, 1858, with the following inscription:
nineteen days before Christmas – Eve –
Lots of people after its over, how they will greave
Lm December 6, 1858 / Dave

Here, Dave uses rhythm and rhyme to juxtapose the joy of Christmas with his knowledge of imminent loss. Why will people “greave” after the holiday ends? It was common practice to “hire out,” and outright sell, enslaved people on New Year’s Day, which separated African American family members from one another, sometimes thousands of miles apart, with no way to communicate or find each other in the future.

Storage Jar, 1858

Simone Leigh

American, born 1967
Large Jug, 2022
Glazed stoneware
Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

Artist Simone Leigh engages deeply with the historic form of face vessels across different bodies of work, exploring various scales and ceramic materials. This monumental piece disrupts the idea that large-scale sculpture is mostly the province of male artists. Leigh looked to an Edgefield jug as a model but used the form as a canvas to display cowrie shells, objects associated with Black culture throughout the African diaspora. The white glaze evokes the kaolin used in Congolese and Edgefield ritualistic tradition.

Large Jug, 2022

James “Son Ford” Thomas

American, 1926–1993
Skull, 1987
Unfired clay and human teeth
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Norfolk Southern Collection of Self-Taught Art, 1998.82

From childhood, James “Son Ford” Thomas worked with the sticky clay native to the Mississippi Delta region where he was born and raised. He earned his nickname “Son Ford” by sculpting Ford tractors, and later, the kinds of portraits on view here. He did not speak about face vessels in the oral histories he gave during his lifetime, but he worked as a gravedigger in African American graveyards where face vessels or other funerary ornaments may have been placed. His heads share the fearsome quality that Edgefield makers imbued in their face vessels, especially his skeletal form, which bears human teeth acquired from one of his patrons who was a dentist. Thomas was also an internationally celebrated blues musician, excelling at a genre of music that, like Edgefield face vessels, is a spiritual art form born during enslavement and made to mediate life and death.

Skull, 1987

Brooks Thompson

American, ca. 1846–1868 to 1930
Blanket Chest, 1900–1920
Painted yellow pine and cedar with iron fittings
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with funds from the Decorative Arts Acquisition Endowment, 1991.284

Brooks Thompson was born enslaved and later worked as a carpenter, carving architectural elements and furniture. Like many of Thompson’s works, Blanket Chest is an example of his distinct wood carving style. His stylized treatment is seen in the textured appearance of the object consisting of diagonal patterns and jagged edges. Thompson’s work is closely associated with Fernandina Beach and American Beach, which is located on Florida’s northeast coast and was founded during the 1930s as a haven for African Americans unable to vacation elsewhere in the segregated South.

1991.284 Bthompson View1 O4

About _______Maker(s) once known

Ef Annotated Label Panel Webpagepng Page 1The question of how to write labels for Edgefield vessels not signed by their enslaved makers has been addressed differently at the venues, which preceded the High Museum of Art’s current presentation of Hear Me Now. As the fourth venue, the High benefited from the critical thought that the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the University of Michigan Museum of Art put into their decisions about attribution; curatorial at the High took several options they were considering to the Atlanta community to help them decide. During the show’s development, Hannah Amuka, the museum’s Coordinator of Gallery Experience, conducted a formative visitor evaluation to gather insight directly from the audience the museum serves. In the exhibition, the resulting labels are also accompanied by this annotated graphic that breaks down how each word contributes to the most accessible and respectful way to attribute the craftwork of enslaved artists according to museum visitors. 

The exhibition is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, with support from the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Henry Luce Foundation.

Premier Exhibition Series Sponsor 

Premier Exhibition Series Supporters

ACT Foundation, Inc.
William N. Banks, Jr.
Mr. Joseph H. Boland, Jr.
Cousins Foundation

Burton M. Gold
Sarah and Jim Kennedy 

Benefactor Exhibition Series Supporters 

Helen C. Griffith
Robin and Hilton Howell 

Ambassador Exhibition Series Supporters

Mrs. Fay S. Howell/The Howell Fund
Karen and Jeb Hughes/Corporate Environments
Loomis Charitable Foundation
The Fred and Rita Richman Fund
Louise Sams and Jerome Grilhot
Mrs. Harriet H. Warren
Elizabeth and Chris Willett

Contributing Exhibition Series Supporters 

Farideh and Al Azadi 
Sandra and Dan Baldwin
Ceramic Circle of Atlanta 
Mr. and Mrs. Robin E. Delmer
Peggy Foreman
Mr. and Mrs. Baxter Jones
Joel Knox and Joan Marmo 
Margot and Danny McCaul 
Wade A. Rakes II and Nicholas Miller

Generous support is also provided by  

Alfred and Adele Davis Exhibition Endowment Fund , Anne Cox Chambers Exhibition Fund , Barbara Stewart Exhibition Fund, Dorothy Smith Hopkins Exhibition Endowment Fund, Eleanor McDonald Storza Exhibition Endowment Fund, The Fay and Barrett Howell Exhibition Fund, Forward Arts Foundation Exhibition Endowment Fund, Helen S. Lanier Endowment Fund, John H. and Wilhelmina D. Harland Exhibition Endowment Fund, Katherine Murphy Riley Special Exhibition Endowment Fund, Margaretta Taylor Exhibition Fund, RJR Nabisco Exhibition Endowment Fund, USI Insurance Services.