CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The African ceramic pots in Krannert Art Museum’s collection are at once functional and works of art.
A pot used for brewing or storing beer widens from its mouth in a lovely curving arc to its midpoint, then narrows again to its delicate base. A large bowl made from a gourd is decorated with an intricate repeating pattern and a rich red ocher color. A vessel made for husbands or sweethearts to store palm oil or water is decorated with tiny ceramic cowrie shells.
Krannert Art Museum will display most of its collection of African vessels in a spring exhibition titled “Spheres of Influence,” which opens Jan. 28. The works in the exhibition were a gift from an anonymous donor in 2005, and were displayed at that time but not since.
The exhibition will also include four pots on loan from Spurlock Museum and two from a private collection.
In addition to displaying this collection, the exhibition will highlight the role these vessels play in the lives of their communities and, particularly, their importance to women. Nearly all the pots were made by women, said Allyson Purpura, exhibition curator and curator of African art at the museum. Women are the ones who know where to harvest the clay to make the pots and how to prepare it, and how to mold the clay and fire the pots. All the vessels on display are low-fired on the ground, rather than in a kiln, and none are glazed. These techniques ensure each container can withstand the heat of cooking over an open fire without cracking, Purpura said.
Women potters decorate their vessels with designs, some of which have symbolic meaning for their communities, but they also add their own flourishes. In some societies, the pots made by a woman are broken when she dies and the grog, or finely-crushed pots, is then mixed with fresh clay to make new pots, Purpura said.
“We can relate to them. They are very intimate, very tactile, very useful and familiar things,” she said, adding the pots in the exhibition – some of them quite large – would be used for brewing and serving beer or palm wine, for containing water or for storing personal items. But they also are used for ceremonial purposes, moving between everyday life and special occasions.
The exhibition will include a 20-minute video of women making pots, showing the techniques and tools they use. The edited footage was taken by Christopher Roy, a professor of African art history at the University of Iowa, and shows the work of expert potters in Burkina Faso and Ghana, West Africa.
Two additional exhibitions opening Jan. 28, curated by Kathryn Koca Polite, will also feature work from the Krannert Art Museum collection.
“Collage: Moving Beyond Paper” examines the continual evolution of collage, beyond the traditional cutting, gluing and reassembling images on paper or canvas. Including artwork from the latter half of the 20th century, the exhibition explores issues of materiality as artists experiment with two-dimensional collage and three-dimensional assemblage.
“Collecting Photography” will feature photographs acquired in the last 10 years, including international photographers examining social, political and environmental concerns and those experimenting with different techniques, including high-speed photography and digital manipulation. The exhibition includes newly acquired work by Donna Ferrato, a photojournalist who documents images of domestic violence and advocates for women in abusive relationships.