The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina is not the first showcase of the poet-potter David Drake (c. 1800–70-80) and his inscribed stoneware. Nor is it the first exhibition to contextualize Drake’s pottery practice alongside the anonymous “face jugs” concurrently produced in Edgefield, South Carolina — in 2021, Shin Gallery’s David Drake to Bill Traylor: Where The Oven Bakes & The Pot Biles presaged The Met show, featuring Edgefield face jugs and ceramic pieces by contemporary Black artists inspired by Drake’s practice and praxis. Yet curatorial pioneering is of lesser importance than the fact that this Met exhibition, carefully and eruditely presented, will undoubtedly bring awareness of both Edgefield’s awesome artistry and Drake’s odds-defying life to a sizable audience.
Comprised of approximately 50 ceramic objects from Old Edgefield, a center for stoneware produced by generations of enslaved Africans in the antebellum South, the exhibition tethers together an expansive survey of the ceramics produced by African-American potters, with Drake’s prodigious, alkaline-glazed ceramic serving as the exhibition’s anchor. Discerning Drake’s aesthetic achievements from his audacious personal life is near impossible — all the more so when we consider Drake’s transcriptions, contemplative reflections on his life as an enslaved man, carved in his wares. As Laban Carrick Hill recounts in Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave (2010), Drake was one of 76 people captured and enslaved in the Edgefield District of South Carolina who worked for family-owned pottery factories. As an American industry, alkaline-glazed stoneware began in the early 1800s, after Abner Landrum found kaolin deposits in Western Carolina, soon transforming the village of Pottersville to meet the economy of a burgeoning plantation economy — these vessels would supply the region with storage for food and goods.
Prior to 1840, Drake lost his leg in a possible rail accident. His labor was often shared or hired out to family members and business partners of an anonymous “Harvey Drake,” including Reuben Drake, Jasper Gibbs, Reverend John Landrum, Dr. Abner Landrum, and Lewis Miles. He learned to not only turn jars but to read and write, becoming literate at a time when it was not only prohibited for enslaved people to be literate but severely punishable (some accounts include amputation as punishment). Drake produced over 100 jugs during his lifetime, with his first inscription — the single word “concatination” (meaning “to link together”) — appearing in 1834 on an unsigned, two-handled storage jar.
In addition to his pithy yet poignant poetry, Drake’s specialization was in creating immense, weighty storage jars. Luminous bister-ochre and pullulating moss-green rivulets sweep in a downcast formation from the jars’ lips like muddied rapids. Drake’s monumental stoneware jugs, covered in lime or wood ash, pool with mottled, cascading drips such that these vessels are at once utilitarian and aesthetic objects of reverence. Drake’s lyrics are often wistful (e.g., “I wonder where is all my relation…,” dated “August 16, 1957”); at times enigmatic (“horses mules and hogs — all our cows is in the bogs — there they shall ever stay till the buzzards take them away,” dated “March 29, 1836”); and in some cases, galvanized by a strident, yet cheeky, sociopolitical force (“Lm says this handle will crack” of “June 28, 1854”; “Lm” here referencing his late enslaver, Louis Miles; that the handle has not cracked is a testament to both Drake’s virtuous artisanship and Miles’s nescience).
Drake usually added the name of his enslaver, “Mr. L. Miles,” or some variant, during the 1840s and generally also signed his first name. Other anonymous jugs produced by unnamed people who were enslaved in Edgefield populate the exhibition. They similarly feature the signature of enslavers, not just overshadowing but eliminating the role of the actual artist. Decisively returning authorship to the artisans, themselves, as The Met has done, is imperative.
Although The Met has collated Drake’s vessels from the late 1830s to the 1850s, the latest known Drake vessel is dated 1865 — this marks the end of the Civil War, when Drake was freed from slavery. Trekking through this exhibition, one is confronted with a critical and oft-elided lesson: Slave labor was not inexpert but often the work of skilled artisans. The profundity of Drake’s towering vessels inspires esteem — as Arthur Goldberg and Deborah Goldberg note, most Edgefield potters turned pots of three to five gallons in size, while Drake “routinely produced jars of 10 gallons capacity and turned pieces as large as 40 gallons in size.” This is all the more impressive when we consider how contemporary potters like Mark Hewitt, Daniel Johnston, and Kim Jones, who are part of the “Monumentalism” movement that strives to turn large-scale ceramics, create pots of 20 gallons.
One of Drake’s unique legacies was to incise the complete date on only one vessel per day and the exhibition features a number of such ceramics. These are not to be understood as secondary in any sense. Drake seems to have potted daily for about 25 years. Although Drake’s reasoning for incising these single dates remains unknown, we might speculate that the dating practice represents the chronology of Drake’s life while enslaved. Writing these dates, day after day, speaks to both his public message that he was literate and is an effective discursive act of protest, countering the received view of history. A comparable dating practice that comes to mind is a prisoner marking off the days of confinement on the prison cell wall. Drake’s production of dated pottery merits his consideration as a precursor to conceptual artists like On Kawara, whose well-known Today series or Date Paintings (from 1966 until his death in 2014) index a life-in-the-living. Drake’s legacy is important for manifold reasons, including aesthetic, historic, sociopolitical, theoretical, and utilitarian purposes.
Alongside other Edgefield vessels made by anonymous people who were enslaved, the exhibition also features a work by Drake and Mark Jones (Drake’s possible apprentice) signed “Mark and Dave.” Jones, another potter who was enslaved by Lewis Miles, may have aided Drake in turning the vessels, given the latter was missing a leg. These works are paired with face jugs that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century, coinciding with the arrival of slave ships that illegally transported hundreds of captive Africans 50 years after the transatlantic slave trade was outlawed in the United States. Hundreds of these enslaved people were sent to Edgefield. These face jugs — small and detailed with ridged teeth, unspooling tongues, and protruding eyes — closely resemble minkisi, sacred religious objects in West-Central Africa understood to facilitate communication between the living and dead. This pairing speaks to the devotional genealogy of all the vessels on display — vessels both in their day-to-day use and metaphysical vessels that point away from the brute conditions of their making. The choice to include Simone Leigh’s “Large Jug” (2021–22), inspired by an Edgefield jug and with cowrie shells in the place of eyes and nose, alongside other contemporary Black artists like Woody de Othella, Robert Pruitt, and Theaster Gates, is commendable. It relays art history as a true concatenation, one rife with anguish and overcomings. Hear Me Now unfolds material history as chronicled by its repeatedly overlooked makers — museums and curators ought not shy away from such tellings.
Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through February 5. The exhibition was co-curated by Adrienne Spinozzi, Ethan Lasser, and Jason Young; a group of artists and scholars were engaged in the planning of the exhibition.