Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 1, 2018
Patricia J. Fay Creole Clay: Heritage Ceramics in the Contemporary Caribbean Series: Latin American and Caribbean Arts and Culture. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2017. 376 pp.; 122 color ills.; 16 b/w ills. Cloth $90.00 (9780813054582)
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Patricia J. Fay’s book, Creole Clay: Heritage Ceramics in the Contemporary Caribbean, fills a void in the broad and diverse history of world ceramics. She does this by focusing our attention on an area of the world generally thought of as a vacation destination instead of a region rich in culture with complicated histories of colonialism, the African diaspora, slavery, hard-won independence, culture, and art, specifically ceramics. Fay deftly weaves the history of this region with the production of utilitarian objects. Her exploration of traditional techniques, raw materials, and the living potters who continue to create traditional ware, against the pressures of the twenty-first century, provides an intimate perspective and, in the end, produces an essential contribution to the history of art and culture in the region.

Women are at the center of this book. Their place in the history and development of ceramics in Guyana and on the islands of Saint Lucia, Nevis and Antigua, Barbuda, Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad, is important in understanding key elements of civilization: the advances of civilization and the sheer survival of humankind was made possible by the traditional crafts people brought to new lands. On their foundation, new cultures are built. By visiting, befriending, listening, and working with these women, Fay, a ceramist herself, is able to give a genuine voice to their stories. And, through her archival research, she links their lineage to Africa, India, Europe, the Americas, and the British Isles.

Typically, introductions can be rather boring and serve as abstracts of what is to come. In hers, Fay takes the time to unravel the problems with semantics and the trouble with naming and renaming. She shows great sensitivity and awareness toward the people and the culture of the region using descriptors such as “heritage” and “traditional” in place of “folk pottery.” She speaks genuinely about pots, pottery, and their makers through language that informs and elevates. She thoughtfully discusses ideas and assumptions of Caribbean identity, creolization, and the Anglophone Caribbean. She also questions the value of comparing traditional work of the region to contemporary ceramics in the rest of the world, which typically leads to a biased hierarchy. Creole clay is the culmination of a post-emancipated Caribbean. Her introduction also gives a primer on the history of the region and the layers of what the author claims is one of the most diverse areas in the world.

The women potters of the island of Saint Lucia, particularly from the district of Choiseul, are at the heart of this book. These women carry on traditional techniques passed from mother to daughter as African and Amerindian descendants. Irena Alphonse, Catty Osman, Agnes Osman, Meridith Felix, Marie (Leo) Clifford, sisters Bernadette Joseph and Mary Phillip, and Jane Faucher are just a few of the artists represented in chapters 2–5. Their stories, processes, and techniques are pivotal to understanding the history of ceramics in the region and where Fay draws comparisons to the ceramics from the other six islands and Guyana. She also uses the work of these potters in comparison to pottery from Europe and most importantly Africa, especially pottery from the Ivory Coast. It is in Africa that Fay finds the close cousins of the women of Saint Lucia and elsewhere. In towns and villages across West Africa such as Tanou Sakassou, Dagbarkaha, and Ouassou, she encounters potters using similar clay processing and making techniques found in the Caribbean. There are wonderful images of these women and others throughout the book collecting clay, processing clay, and making, drying, and firing their ware. These women are the lifeblood of this tradition and are the main source of local lore, which is so important to the book. Their stories woven with scholarly research viewed from the lens of a maker are where Fay shines. She has gained the women’s trust to follow them into their homes, out into the clay fields to record their making and firing processes, listen to their stories, and dig into historic archives, giving voice to these artists and their ancestors.

Fay covers a wide breadth of history layered in this region, from the landing of the Olive Branch, a British ship that encountered Amerindians on the island of Saint Lucia in 1605 to the tumultuous days of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including the wars with the British. Colonialism and its ramifications are presented in chapter 5, “Provenance.” Important plantations are discussed here, such as the Mamiku and the Balenbouche estates, where clay is seen as an integral part of daily living and plantation operations. The Mamiku plantation had a full pottery shop with the remains of a kiln, wheel-thrown ware, tile, and ceramic sugar molds. Chapter 6 speaks to the idea of Creole clay and what that means. Chapters 7–10 appropriately present the effects of colonialism throughout the other six islands as well as their similarities and differences both in making techniques and ancestry.

From the time the first potters of African descent began making ceramic ware on the islands, not much about the processes and techniques employed has changed. The pots are plain, open-field fired, terra-cotta ware with little or no embellishments either to the forms or the surfaces. This may be why the potters and pottery of the region were, as the author puts it, “invisible” to those recording the histories of these islands. The fact that they were enslaved also made them easy to ignore other than as property. Returning to the matter of the pottery itself, this is functional ware, everyday, rough and tumble pottery. However, two of the more intriguing pots are the coal pot and the monkey jar. The coal pot is a cooking pot complete with a covered vessel with handles and a hollow, cylindrical post that flares at the top for the cooking pot to rest. At the bottom of the cylindrical post is a cutout space for coals that slow cook the different foods. There is a wonderful combination of visual elements in the design of these pots: the lift the post gives to the cooking pot, the volume of the cooking pots, the way the pot sits in the flared post, and the two sets of handles, one set creating a diagonal line going up from the cooking pot and a counter directional line moving down from the handles on the post. One of the most fascinating and unique techniques the women potters use in making these pots is balancing the clay on a board in their laps and turning the board with their legs while adding clay to enlarge or finish the piece. This type of pot, or combination of pots, Fay diligently tracks from Africa and Europe. There have been and still are both clay and metal coal pots (often called braziers) used in households and found in different designs around the world, some dating from as far back as 450 BCE in Greece. However, the particular design found on Saint Lucia and other islands has a direct lineage from Africa and the colonizing countries of Europe. Fay also alludes to influences through slavery moving back and forth between the islands and the slave-owning colonies of North America. I wish the interaction and influences between the islands and the states had been more fleshed out. However, we are given the names of other researchers who have studied these influences. Fay’s research is supported by other archaeologists and historians, leaving little doubt that the heritage pottery of these Anglo Caribbean islands did not originate with early indigenous inhabitants. A large-lidded pouring vessel that looks like a giant teapot, the monkey jar is an interesting ceramic vessel from the island of Barbados and is used to cool water on the island. There is a far more European aesthetic to the design of the monkey jar; the throwing skills used on the potter’s wheel by the Chalky Mountain potters are masterful. Although the jar is no longer used for cooling water, its iconic stature keeps it in a potter’s stable of goods, which are sold, like most ware made on the islands today, to tourists and resorts.

As far as migration and techniques are concerned, one of the biggest surprises is that the descendants of indentured servants were forced to migrate from India to Trinidad. With migration comes cultural exchange and with these potters came the rich cultural and religious teachings of Hinduism. Worship and celebrations from India are practiced on the island and some of the fastest potters can be found making work influenced by the religion. Deities like Vishnu and Shiva are sculpted and brightly colored along with millions of oil lamps called deyas, produced for the Hindu festival of Diwali. The chapter “Trinidad and Guyana: Indians in the Americas” is a fascinating and unexpected gem. In the same chapter Fay slips over to the South American mainland and briefly discusses the Amerindian potters of Guyana. This shift to a different culture is interesting in its nature but leaves one wanting more. However, that is the tail of a bigger animal concerning South American art history and better left for another book.

Creole Clay: Heritage Ceramics in the Contemporary Caribbean is a wonderful addition to the world history of ceramics as well as Caribbean history, anthropology, sociology, and black history, specifically black women and enslavement. Included in the book are beautiful images of artists and their ware, historical images, maps, a thorough bibliography, and charming quotes. It is a Herculean effort spanning over ten years of research, the success of which rests squarely on the passion and love Fay has for clay and the artists of this region. In this warm and well-written book, environment, technology, historical events, and art are brought together to explore our history and the human condition.

Brian Snapp
Professor, Ceramics, Department of Art and Art History, University of Utah

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.