This essay originally appeared in the Milwakee Journal Sentinel blog Art City.
In a small exhibition space at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 23 stoneware faces confront visitors with gnashing teeth, wide eyes, and a haunting question. Created by artists who were denied the freedom to read, write, or express their beliefs, it’s easy to imagine they were used as a covert way to say something, or even do something. But what?
The Chipstone Foundation offers some intriguing theories in “Face Jugs: Art and Ritual in 19th-Century South Carolina”, an exhibition that attempts to unearth the language behind objects some have dismissed as grotesque oddities.
If you’ve seen pottery face mugs and jugs and pitchers at craft fairs, consider them distant, diminished relations to the objects on display here. These are the originals, and there’s nothing kitschy about them. They came out of a South Carolina pottery community called Edgefield, where abundant sources of clay and kaolin kept manufacturers busy in the 19th century. Essentially, they are stoneware vessels with faces on them – eyes, nose, mouth, ears – produced roughly between 1860 and 1880. They are animated, rich with personality, full of emotion. They were created by slaves and, later, freed slaves.
This is the first time so many face mugs have been gathered into one show, and to see them side by side is an event in itself. Edgefield face jugs are considered rare — it is believed that only 200 exist — and there’s debate about why they were created. The Chipstone team has influenced that debate by digging into previous scholarly studies, conducting its own research, and consulting archaeologists. To hear the show’s curator, Claudia Mooney, describe their work is a little like listening to a mystery book being narrated aloud.
In the presence of the face jugs, it’s sobering to imagine what they have witnessed. They are among the very few slave-made artifacts in existence. Empty as they are, they carry a weight.
They were described as water jugs as early as 1893, but they’re not glazed inside and they’re small, so how could they be functional objects? Could this description be intentionally misleading to disguise their real use?
They exhibit similarities to African design, but they emerged 50 years after the importation of slaves was made illegal; how could artists so many generations removed from Africa be so familiar with African visual culture?
What does it mean that every jug has eyes and teeth made of kaolin? The material, used to make porcelain, is difficult to work with in combination with stoneware, and clearly required extra effort and skill. As Mooney puts it, these pots “weren’t just whimsies.” Why did the artists go to so much trouble?
And what about the dark-eyed jug? A face jug that the Chipstone Foundation acquired earlier this year is an outlier: Its eyes are black instead of kaolin-white, and words are written on its back. What does this signify?
The Chipstone exhibit posits fascinating theories about all these questions. For instance, it points to The Wanderer, a luxury yacht retrofitted to hide slaves in its belly at a time when the slave trade was illegal. It’s known that more than 100 of The Wanderer’s unwilling passengers were sent to the Edgefield region at around the time face jugs first emerged. Most of these new slaves were from Kongo societies (not to be confused with the Congo), a culture with a tradition of sacred vessels, or nkisi, that attract and channel spiritual powers. And – in another intriguing connection – kaolin is found in African Kongo communities, where it was considered a sacred substance.
The most exhilarating research moment came when a hunch and a Google search connected the dark-eyed jug to Kongo culture, explaining its eyes and strengthening the case that the jugs are descendants of nkisi created to conjure spirits who would answer needs. Since mysteries are best when you can read the ending yourself, I won’t give this one away. You’ll have to see the exhibit.
Staring out of exhibition cases, each face will challenge you and draw you in. They are hauntingly charismatic. This one looks defiant, this one looks mournful, this one looks angry, and I think I see that one winking. The fellow with the cleft chin is rather dashing. A few are shaped as pitchers. Mooney’s favorite is an “enigmatic and fascinating” one in the Chipstone collection that is the only known face jug with a tongue. “Its small size suggests that it was probably one of the earlier face jugs,” she says. “Its expression hints at its hidden symbolism. When you hold it, you feel its power.”
There’s still much to learn about the jugs, says Mooney, and the research will continue. Maybe the power she describes is in the learning. It’s impossible not to be moved by the truths these objects represent, truths both uncomfortable and stirring.
“Face Jugs: Art and Ritual in 19th-Century South Carolina,” is on view through Aug. 5 at the Milwaukee Art Museum. After that, it travels to the Columbia (S.C.) Museum of Art, the Birmingham (Ala.) Museum of Art, and the Georgia Museum of Art. The exhibit includes a piece commissioned by contemporary artist Brian Gillis, who designed a nickel-plated vessel to house and protect knowledge about the Edgefield face jugs now and in the future.