“Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina,” just opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, begins with a whisper, solemn and lush. At the entrance, a chorus of soft voices intones more than 150 names: Fortune Justice. Pharoah Jones. Shep Davis. Mariah Day. Each is known to have been enslaved in the ceramic factories of Old Edgefield where their forced labor made vast fortunes they could never touch. The MFA movingly makes “Hear Me Now” a literal plea: The incantation is a kind of séance, calling them forth across the ages.
Those 150 people hint at the hundreds more that research on the area, really just nascent, may yet uncover. For now, one stands above them all: David Drake, or “Dave the Potter,” whose enormous, expertly wrought ceramic jars center the show in audacity and achievement. Through the doors and into the low light of the galleries, an earthy, mustard-toned vessel looms imposingly at the exhibition’s heart; everything else is in its orbit. With rivulets of alkaline glaze dribbling down from the broad curve below its lip and handles to its tapered base, it is mesmerizingly beautiful, expressively made by a master who knew his materials so well that even the cascading looseness of the glaze feels intentional and precise. It feels monumental, and not just in scale. Made in 1858 at the Stony Bluff Manufactory, where Drake was enslaved, the piece all but vibrates with defiance, a near-living presence. It is an emblem of a creative act made under such duress that its presence feels not just triumphant, but almost holy.
Drake — the surname of his first enslaver, which he took on a voter registration form just after Emancipation — was unique in two ways. He made ceramic jars at a scale no-one in the Edgefield industry could match, and, flouting South Carolina laws that banned literacy among enslaved people, he signed them with a graceful cursive finely inscribed in their hides. “A very large Jar which has 4 handles = / pack it full of fresh meats - then light candles - / Lm April 12 1858/ Dave,” he carved into the 1858 piece, spanning the gap between handholds.
It’s an enigmatic verse, one of many he scored into his vessels; the exhibition presents a dozen of them. Their meaning can only be speculated upon; little is known of Drake’s life beyond records of ownership kept by his various enslavers. The vessels were made, largely, for food storage, and exported to plantations throughout the South, where they were often handled by enslaved people working in food preparation. One might imagine this inscription as an exhortation to those workers to preserve their dignity at mealtime through ritual and communion, but a guess is all it is. An 1857 jar’s message begins with the phrase “I wonder where is all my relation;” it’s believed that around this time, Drake’s wife and children were sold at auction and taken to Louisiana. Some speculate he intended it as a transmission to the outside world in search of them.
Drake is surely the star of the show, here and elsewhere; in 2021, one of his monumental jars commanded $1.5 million at auction. But “Hear Me Now” is about a chorus of the unseen, not one voice, however singular and resonant. An entire community of men, women, and children in Edgefield, shackled in servitude, marked their existence with the product of forced labor. A shard of pottery, the salvaged bottom of a broken jar, bears a hand-print, fingers stretched wide, a declaration of self; it felt as poignant to me as any of Drake’s cryptic rhymes.
The exhibition’s power lies not only in the almost paralyzing force of the beauty Drake produced from American life at its most grim, but in its echoes in the present day. Craft, however masterful, becomes art when it transcends its time and place and feeds meaning in the here and now. “Hear Me Now,” curated with thoughtful intent by the MFA’s Ethan Lasser, the Met’s Adrienne Spinozzi, and University of Michigan historian Jason Young, rings clearly with those connections.
A generation of Black contemporary artists have drawn on Edgefield’s history as creative DNA in their own practice. It is a lineage of the unknown. At the back of the exhibition space, an array of face jugs, their anonymous makers listed as “once known,” cluster in a shadowy vitrine. Some speculate that such pieces were made by enslaved potters on their own time with a talismanic, spiritual intent; white Southerners derided them with racist epithets.
Simone Leigh, whose exhibition “Sovereignty” filled the US Pavilion at the Venice Biennale last year, brought the Edgefield story to the biggest stage of the contemporary art world. Right now, Leigh’s first-ever museum survey is being installed across town at the ICA, which will include most of her Venice show. Working with a demeaning historical photograph of a Black enslaved woman posed with a face jug, Leigh merged them into a human-height ceramic form, sombre and pale, that radiated grace. In the gallery here is its Venice counterpart, another huge vessel studded menacingly with cowrie shells. Pairing them together, Leigh made a forceful reclamation: Whatever enslavement and degradation tried to take from the form, she pulled through to the present and restored.
Black artists have been the stewards of a contemporary reconsideration of the Edgefield industry, perhaps seeking an artistic lineage that conventional art history, a white-dominated field, denies them. Drake was a regional folk figure until Theaster Gates, now one of the most celebrated American artists in the world, mounted “To Speculate Darkly: Theaster Gates and Dave the Potter” in 2010 at the Milwaukee Art Museum. It brought Drake into the contemporary limelight for the first time; Lasser was Gates’s curator for the project.
It hardly seems a coincidence that both Gates and Leigh, whose work is often about the invisible labor of Black women, are trained ceramacists, drawing that lineage deeper. Gates is represented here with a video of a performance piece made for Milwaukee that transformed Drake’s poetry into hymns; his “Signature Study,” 2020 hangs nearby, a thick ceramic block into which he’s carved a deep fissure, and “Theaster,” in rough cursive strokes.
Robert Pruitt’s drawings forge Black American aesthetic lineage explicitly, as he cloaks his subjects in distinct textiles like the quiltwork of Harriet Powers, considered to be the mother of the African American story quilt tradition. The show makes a sharp pairing of his “Birth and Rebirth and Rebirth,” 2019, of a quilt-swathed woman pouring water from a face jug. The jug itself from the MFA’s collection, perches on a pedestal right beside it.
But it’s the work of Adebunmi Gbadebo that conjures the most visercal link. Gbadebo traces her family history to enslaved people at South Carolina’s True Blue Plantation, where they were forced to work rice and indigo fields. She makes enigmatic vessels adorned with rice and locks of human hair from clay taken from True Blue’s burial ground, where she believes her ancestors lie.
“Hear Me Now” would be a riveting history lesson, chilling and mournful, if that’s all it was. It aspires to, and achieves, so much more. It honors the dead by elevating the living. Forged by hand with common soil, “Hear Me Now” reaches across generations to make a broken story whole.
HEAR ME NOW: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina
At the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 465 Huntington Ave., through July 9. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org.
Murray Whyte can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.