Press release

Landmark Exhibition of Ceramic Objects from Old Edgefield District of South Carolina Opens September 9 at The Met

Exhibition Dates: September 9, 2022–February 5, 2023
Exhibition Location: The Met Fifth Avenue, Gallery 955, Robert Lehman Wing

 The landmark exhibition Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina opens at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 9, 2022. Focusing on the work of African American potters in the19th-century American South, in dialogue with contemporary artistic responses, the exhibition presents approximately 50 ceramic objects from Old Edgefield District, South Carolina, a center of stoneware production in the decades before the Civil War. It will include monumental storage jars by enslaved potter and poet David Drake, alongside rare examples of the region’s utilitarian wares, as well as enigmatic face vessels whose makers were unrecorded. Considered through the lens of current scholarship in the fields of history, literature, anthropology, material culture, diaspora, and African American studies, these vessels testify to the lived experiences, artistic agency, and material knowledge of the enslaved peoples of this area. 

The exhibition is made possible by Kathryn Ploss Salmanowitz, The Met’s Fund for Diverse Art Histories, the Terra Foundation for American Art, Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang, The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, and the Henry Luce Foundation.

It is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

“As the first exhibition from The Met’s American Wing to highlight the work of enslaved makers, this project marks a pivotal moment in the Museum’s efforts to tell a more inclusive and expansive story of artistic expression, both past and present. These remarkable vessels help tell untold histories, while also raising complex questions regarding the collecting, display, and interpretation of objects made by enslaved individuals,” said Max Hollein, Marina Kellen French Director of The Met. “Displayed alongside the 19th-century works are contemporary works that reflect the spirit of, or were directly inspired by, Edgefield traditions. Taken together—along with the scholarly publication, audio guide, and upcoming public programs—this exhibition celebrates the creative practices of all artists on display as enduring tools of communication and activism.”

Exhibition Overview

In the decades before the Civil War, a successful alkaline-glazed stoneware industry developed in Old Edgefield District, a clay-rich area in the westernmost part of South Carolina. From the beginning, enslaved African Americans were involved with all aspects of this labor-intensive industry. The stoneware they made—durable, impervious, utilitarian vessels of varying sizes and forms essential for food preparation and storage—supported the area’s expanding population and was inextricably linked to the demands of a lucrative plantation economy.

Hear Me Now sheds light on the many contributions and lived experiences of the hundreds of men, women, and children who labored within slavery’s system of oppression by presenting a fuller picture of the region’s stoneware production. 

The exhibition opens with a display of 12 monumental masterpieces by Edgefield’s best-known artist, David Drake—known as Dave—who signed, dated, and incised verses on many of his jars, even though literacy among enslaved people was criminalized at the time. The verses bear witness to the joys, traumas, and lived experience of enslavement, echoing the prose of abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs.

Among the highlights is a selection of 19 regional face vessels—ceramic vessels embellished with hand-modeled facial features in high relief. Also referred to as face jugs, the emergence of these vessels coincides roughly with the 1858 arrival of a slave ship illegally transporting more than 400 captive Africans, some 50 years after the transatlantic slave trade had been outlawed in the United States. More than 100 of these individuals were sent to Edgefield, where many were put to work in the potteries. Growing evidence suggests that this late arrival of captive Africans served as a catalyst in the re-emergence of African-inspired art, religion, and culture in the region. Face vessels bear a close resemblance to minkisi, or ritual objects, which were important in West-Central African religious practices where ritual experts used kaolin as a sacred substance to facilitate communication between the living and the dead. Kaolin inserts are found in Edgefield face vessels, suggesting similar spiritual meanings. 

Speaking to Edgefield’s continued resonance, and offering connections to an otherwise fragmented past, the contemporary pieces in Hear Me Now include works by Black artists who have responded to or whose practice resonates with the Edgefield story, such as Simone Leigh, Adebunmi Gbadebo, Woody De Othello, Theaster Gates, and Robert Pruitt.

The exhibition also steps back centuries prior to European and American incursions on what is now the southeastern United States when Indigenous peoples had developed tools and techniques to take advantage of the area’s rich clay deposits. Within the galleries is an example of an earthenware bowl dating to around 1500 by an unidentified Woodland artist, on view alongside a contemporary vessel by Earl Robbins, a Catawba Indian Nation potter. 

Augmented by a scholarly publication, robust audio content, and an upcoming program of educational offerings and a symposium, Hear Me Now represents a critical contribution to the field of American art.

Curatorial Credits
The exhibition is co-curated by Adrienne Spinozzi, Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Ethan Lasser, John Moors Cabot Chair of the Art of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts; and Jason Young, Associate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. A group of artists and scholars were engaged in the planning of the exhibition.

Following the exhibition’s debut at The Met, it will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (March 6– July 9, 2023), the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor (August 26, 2023 – January 7, 2024), and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta (February 16– May 12, 2024).

About the Catalogue
The accompanying publication features essays on the production, collection, dispersal, and reception of stoneware from Edgefield, offering a critical look at what it means to collect, exhibit, and interpret objects made by enslaved artisans. The catalogue includes an interview with Simone Leigh, internationally acclaimed artist and the U.S. representative at the 2022 Venice Biennale, where she was awarded the Gold Lion. Additional contributors include the exhibition curators, Adrienne Spinozzi, Ethan Lasser, and Jason Young; Michael J. Bramwell, visual artist, doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Linde Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Vincent Brown, Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.; and Katherine C. Hughes, a doctoral candidate in public history at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, and the Curator of Cultural Heritage and Community Engagement at McKissick Museum, University of South Carolina, Columbia. 

It is published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, it will be available for purchase from The Met Store.

The catalogue is made possible by the William Cullen Bryant Fellows of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Additional support is provided by Bridget and Al Ritter.

About the Audio Guide
The illuminating 10-stop audio guide will feature eight rich and varied voices—including the artists Glenn Ligon and Adebunmi Gbadebo, and Dr. Tonya M. Matthews, president and CEO of the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina—that highlight the brilliant artistic ingenuity and autonomy of the enslaved potters of Edgefield along with the contemporary art on view in the galleries. More information and a full list of contributors can be found here. The audio guide will be available in the exhibition via QR code and on the Museum’s website. 

The Audio Guide is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies. 

Education Programs
On Saturday, December 3, The Met will host a public program titled “Learning from Edgefield,” featuring discussions with a range of expert participants including historians, artists, and museum leaders to explore best practices around working with descendant communities and important African American cultural heritage sites, including Edgefield, and how museums collect, display, and interpret objects by enslaved makers. 
Education programs are made possible by Thelma and AC Hudgins.

Additional programs and details will be available as they are announced on The Met website. 

The exhibition is featured on the Museum's website, as well as on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.


September 8, 2022

Contact: Alexandra Kozlakowski

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