Jul. 15—From Edgefield County to Fifth Avenue in New York City, David Drake's pottery is bringing the antebellum South to modern day.
Drake, also known as Dave the Potter, was born in 1801 but spent the majority of his life as a slave in Edgefield County under Dr. Adler Landrum. He died in the 1870s, but his legacy comes from functional pots and jars that were used in a variety of plantations across the South that consisted of inscribed poetry and writing.
Opening Sept. 9 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the new exhibit "Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina" will showcase the work of approximately 60 ceramic objects from pre-Civil War America.
"If you look all around us, there is history all around us if you look closely. It was a way to sort of capture the urgency of the message, and 'Hear Me Now' is a way to exclaim that I have been communicating for a long time but nobody has been listening," Metropolitan Museum of Art ceramics curator Adrienne Spinozzi said. "So 'Hear Me Now' is sort of a way to grab people's attention and again sort of tell the story through the eyes of the potters."
Following the five-month exhibition at the Met, the project will travel to Boston's Museum of Fine Art from March 6, 2023, through July 9, 2023; University of Michigan's Art Museum in Ann Arbor from Aug. 26, 2023, through Jan. 7, 2024; Atlanta's High Museum of Art from Feb. 16, 2024, through May 12, 2024; and finishing up at the new Charleston International African American Museum in 2024.
Origins of 'Hear Me Now'
Curators from across the country, including Spinozzi, Ethan Lasser and Jason Young, took on the challenge to spread the region's stories, including Dave's well-known story.
"Together, they really tell a much broader story in Edgefield and, in particular, we are just really reexamining this material and really highlighting the contributions of the enslaved potters who were working in Edgefield," Spinozzi said. "There have been previous projects on this material before; but they haven't really focused on that particular lens, and that is what we are doing. Trying to get attention and prioritize the people who haven't been considered or given due credit."
The research process for the curators has been in progress for five years.
Taking several trips to Edgefield and traveling around the state of South Carolina, they used their time in the Southeast to get hands-on experiences with the pottery and the area through excavations and archaeology.
"We are quite literally walking on this material, it comes from the Earth, it's returned to the Earth. So when you are working in and around these sites in Edgefield — I described it to my colleagues and others — I described it as walking on bones because you are on these sites that you are walking on the bones of this ceramic material, which is the same as the bones of the people who produced that. I am humbled by that feeling, and it's deeply meaningful," Jason Young, an associate professor of history at the University of Michigan, said. "... Just know how fragile the material is, how fragile the lives of the people who produced it — it really is deeply, deeply meaningful to me; but I don't ever want to lose that connection to the ground and the land because that is what this material derives from."
The visiting curators also took the time to meet with local historians, collectors and museums to gain a greater understanding of the history and the land within Edgefield County.
"When we are doing the show, we are not just producing pottery. We are not just producing a show to put art on the wall; we are actually trying to start and continue and support conversations," Young said.
"I think that it is also important to note that within that period, an enslaved person having skill was a very valuable thing. When you look at the history of the auctions, they advertised in great detail the skills of that person. The more skill, the value relates to that," said artist Adebunmi Gbadebo, whose work will showcase parallels to her family heritage in South Carolina and will be featured in the exhibit.
"The fact that Dave not only had this skill of making those pots in the way he did, which was masterful, the scale of what he could do," she continued. "The fact that he is literate, even though it is illegal, is a skill that brings monetary value to his owners. When you bring value and things like that to the conversation, it complicates even what is allowed and what is not allowed."
Impacts of Edgefield and beyond
To the curators, the "Hear Me Now" exhibit is just the beginning of a larger conversation around Black history, enslavement in the United States, and the under-told stories in Southern culture around the country.
"One of the things that has been exciting about this project is learning that there are a lot of ceramic artists, ceramists today, exceptional artists that are thinking about Edgefield," said Ethan Lasser, curator and John Moors Cabot Chair at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. "It's not just a historian project. Three of us are historians, but we are learning as much from people that are making things right now as we are from people in our worlds."
Lasser said he is looking forward to the conversations the exhibit will create.
"In our part of the world, our (Boston) museum has been open for 150 years, and this is the second showing of an artist from the South. Just the very idea of introducing Southern culture into a Northern museum is a very meaningful thing," Lasser said. "I am just really excited to see how people respond to this story and how it opens up the world to people, because these things are alive in a way and are not just historical artifacts. They are alive with the questions that they still ask, and the more people you get talking about them, the more you understand the changes; and I am looking forward to the conversations."
Researcher George Wingard, the program coordinator with the Savannah River Archaeological research program with the University of South Carolina, said, "Dave helps us remind us that there were these master craftsmen who were enslaved, and we will never know who they were, but Dave helps remind us that they should be remembered as part of that record for what they did."
Local perspective on Edgefield
Locally, historians, authors and potters are looking forward to sharing and unveiling the history of Edgefield to a larger audience in the United States.
"With the Met, the focus of that exhibition is local because the potters were from Edgefield and now part of Aiken County. They are focusing on them and really educating people in the North about this history," said Wayne O'Bryant, a local historian and tour guide for the curators. "... It's our history, and a lot of our own people don't know their own history. It will be great that people outside of their small communities value something that came from them."
"I am very happy that the work of the Black potters of Edgefield will soon be on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art," said Leonard Todd, author of "Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter, Dave." "During their lifetimes, these highly skilled men and women worked together to create something more than the utilitarian vessels they were assigned to produce ... I don't suggest that they were thinking 'works of art' through all of this, but I am sure they had in mind 'beautiful pots.' And that was enough."
"It does tell a number of stories about the South, the free South, that are all very interesting; but many of them have to do with how the economics of the region depended almost entirely on the ability of manufacturers and large plantation owners to balance their books through free labor," said Kevin Grogan, director of the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta. "... This particular kind of pottery literally could not have been made anyplace else because of this unique access to a particular kind of clay and these particularly talented people who were raised to do this thing."
"Dave is my personal hero. I grew up knowing about his capabilities and have a great respect for what he did," said Justin Guy, master potter at Old Edgefield Pottery. "... I think Dave should be remembered as a person who received a unique life, had a natural talent, and expressed that beyond any other person, beyond any other person in his rank or class. Truly an individual, unique to the very definition of unique."
Samantha Winn covers the city of North Augusta, with a focus on government and community oriented business. Follow her on Twitter: @samanthamwinn and on Facebook and Instagram: @swinnnews.