African Pottery Making


The African art of pottery is a significantly symbolic form that is surrounded by tradition and ritual. The design involved is carefully dictated by metaphors used to describe human and animal growth and transformation through life experience.

Finding Clay

In the South African Republic of Zambia, local potters find vast amounts of clay in the Kalambo falls area. The clay is grayish brown and has a very grainy consistency. When the potters obtain the proper amount of clay they break it down into several small pieces and leave it out in the sun to dry. When dried completely, these pieces get pounded into a mortar. The potters filter the clay powder that remains through homemade sieves to remove any large or unwanted pieces of stone and any other chunks that remain. A grog, which is crushed fired clay, is then added to reduce drying, shrinking and cracking by opening up the clay body. The potter then adds water as needed until the plastic clay comes to appropriate consistency.

Design and Construction

Several tools are needed for this process. In typical African villages, potters use a gourd shell with a serrated edge, a rounded smooth wooden stick, some small black pebbles, a short piece of hosepipe and dry maize cob with no kernels. Starting with a sausage-shaped piece of clay bent into a ring, the potter lays out the base of the pot onto the work surface. The size of this ring depends on the type of pot needed. For a typical water bowl or food bowl, 20cm in diameter is a standard size. For a small pot, one ring will do; for a medium size, two rings are required and three rings would be used for a large pot. The potter shapes the clay into the desired design and uses the maize cob to bend a barrel shape if necessary. If small cracks appear the potter will continue to use the cob to smooth these out. Shaping the neck of the pottery can be a difficult step. For this action the potter would use the wooden stick or hosepipe to pull the clay upward into the appropriate shape. For an artistic look the potter will engrave ridges or drawings, using the piece of gourd for making the fine detailed lines. In some cases the artist is left to her own imagination for design and in other scenarios a tribal elder may commission specific designs of his choosing. This step is usually well thought out and many hours are invested, as the artistic expression is very important to this culture.

Drying and Finishing

The pots are left in the sun for four days and then taken to be fired, usually in a small clearing in the forest where dry branches are easy to find. Five or six large logs are placed side by side with smaller branches in between that form a raft-like shape 1 meter square. This acts as the base of the kiln. The potters round up small bits of grass and twigs to fill the empty spaces, then lay the pots on their sides and atop the logs. They will place more branches over them until all of the pots are completely covered. When this is complete the kiln stands roughly 80cm high. The kiln is now ready to be lit as more twigs and grass are added to produce a healthy flame. The potters will then dig a hole 30cm deep and 40cm wide and fill it with damp leaves somewhere near the fire. After 45 minutes or so when the pots are red hot and ready to be drawn from the kiln, the potters lift them out with a large stick and rest them on the ground for a few minutes before placing them in the hole for cooling. After about five more minutes the pot is black and the potters lift it out. They apply previously collected bark liquid to the surface, which helps cool the pot fully and leaves a beautiful glossy black finish.

Keywords: African pottery, clay, crafts

About this Author

Johnathan Micah Rapp has been a writer for 30 years. He has served as a music reporter and photo journalist for Seeds & Stems, Nuvo and Hash Times Weekly Government Journal. John lays claim to a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and journalism from Indiana State University and sits on the Board of Directors for the Indianapolis Liberal Artists Action Coalition.

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