About 15 years ago, Ethan Lasser was a fledgling curator at the Milwaukee Art Museum when the artist Theaster Gates invited him to “meet Dave.” Lasser was more than happy for the connection. Gates was well on his way to becoming one of the most consequential artists of his generation; his sharp observations on the omission of Black culture in the American canon would soon become a model for engaging the selective histories portrayed in museums all over the country. Dave, Lasser thought, was among Gates’s fellow travelers.
“I assumed he was a friend, someone he knew and we would go see,” Lasser said. The assumption was about half right. Dave was David Drake, an obscure enslaved potter from the mid-19th century, whose work was produced as part of an industrial-scale venture by his enslavers.
Lasser and Gates couldn’t see him, but they could see his work, then held mostly by regional museums close by to Edgefield, S.C., where Drake spent most of his indentured life. Lasser saw Drake’s work for the first time at the home of a New York-area collector and was immediately entranced. He arranged to borrow the piece for Gates’s 2010 exhibition in Milwaukee, “To Speculate Darkly,” the artist’s homage to Drake (the piece is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). Gates, who had trained as a ceramicist, had a personal connection to Drake’s work. The show unfolded to the strains of a gospel choir the artist commissioned as reverence to Drake and his overlooked genius.
More than a decade later, things have changed. Gates’s first major museum survey exhibition, “Young Lords and Their Traces,” is currently at the New Museum in New York. Lasser is now the chair of the Art of the Americas department at the Museum of Fine Arts, which is in the throes of preparing perhaps the most significant presentation of Drake’s work to date: “Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina,” opening March 4. (The exhibition, organized with the Met, opened there in September.)
The exhibition includes an array of face jugs, a ceramic genre of distorted and caricaturized faces inscribed into vessels. Their makers are unknown — they were also enslaved people in Edgefield, an industrial ceramics hotbed in the antebellum South. “Hear Me Now” draws important lineage: The historical pieces will be accompanied by contemporary artists like Gates and Simone Leigh, a master ceramacist steeped in the Edgefield story whose first museum survey opens at the Institute of Contemporary Art in April.
As for Drake: He’s no longer unknown. His ceramic jars, uniquely huge and masterfully constructed and glazed, are prized on the auction circuit; one sold for $1.56 million at Maryland’s Crocker Farm auction in August 2021. For Michael Bramwell, the newly installed curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art at the MFA, the art market’s current infatuation with Drake is thick with irony: Drake’s pottery was made under the duress of enslavement, as utilitarian objects for food storage. The extravagant sums his work now commands — none of it shared with Drake’s descendants, who are involved in the exhibition — extends the injustice of his story.
Bramwell says that this show marks a significant moment for the MFA. For the first time in its 152-year history, the museum has crafted an exhibition around artworks clearly attributed to enslaved people. For Bramwell, who is in the final stages of a PhD thesis on Drake and his work, it’s a marker rich with implication for the future. “That door is now open,” he told me at the museum recently. “And now that it is, what can we bring in? These objects are used to tell a story — so what’s the story? We can talk about his skill, and talent, and how beautifully made they are. But Drake knew, because of his skill, that he was a valuable commodity.”
Drake would pay dearly for his own value, not only in sweat, but in blood. He had one leg severed at some point in his life, well after his gift for ceramics had been established. One story suggests it was lost in a train accident, but Bramwell also noted the common practice of enslaved people being subject to amputations, both as punishment and as a means of preventing their escape.
Drake, so valuable in his productivity, was stuck in place. But he was unique among his peers in another way: He was able to read and write, a dangerous thing to reveal in a brutal environment where literacy among enslaved people was not only banned but often severely punished. At great risk, his pots bear his hallmark beyond exquisite craft: Etched into their surfaces in his elegant cursive are verses of poetry, observations of his confinement, and messages to the outside world. “He knew he couldn’t travel, but his pots would,” Bramwell said. “The pots would leave his shack to be loaded onto a wagon and sent off to plantations all over the South, where other enslaved people would use them in those households to store food.”
Drake’s messages could be spiritual, or plaintive: One pot simply reads “catination,” or bonded, in this case, in enslaved labor. But they could also be poignantly mournful: ”I wonder where is all my relation,” reads another, a searching plea that some speculate might have been about his family, sold or traded away to another plantation while he, far too valuable to lose, remained yoked to his potter’s wheel. The pots were missives to an unknowable world; all he could be sure of was that his relatives were out there, somewhere, and his jars had a far better chance than he did of ever finding them.
Precious little of Drake’s life is officially recorded. Lasser said he did live long enough to experience emancipation; he registered to vote at the Edgefield courthouse around the time he made his last pot, in 1866. Drake is believed to have died sometime in the 1870s, as new Jim Crow laws began to take effect.
Drake’s work is surely beautiful, but “Hear Me Now” is about far more than aesthetic or craft. “It’s about telling a story about art and enslavement that’s not often told,” Lasser said. “What does it mean to present a body of work whose makers were violently erased?” Drake’s literacy allowed him to leave a trail to be followed, through the ages. But it also leaves a tantalizing question, and one destined never to be answered: “How many other Daves were there, working in any number of other materials?,” Lasser said. “All of these objects are monuments to lives unrecorded, of feeling and thought.”
They’re also monuments to something else, Lasser said: the very worst of the nation’s history, and the admirable defiance of crafting beauty in the face of it.
HEAR ME NOW: THE BLACK POTTERS OF OLD EDGEFIELD, SOUTH CAROLINA
March 4-July 9. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 465 Huntington Avenue. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org
Due to a reporter’s error, an earlier version of this story misstated the era in which enslaved potter David Drake worked. It was the 19th century. The Globe regrets the error.