While on the express bus riding down 5th Avenue to attend the Met’s press event, it was a joy to gaze at the huge poster advertising the recently opened landmark exhibition, “Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina,” hanging in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You must see these extraordinary sculptures, elegant and somehow so modern, created by skilled African American artists in the 19th-century American South. There are approximately 50 ceramic objects from this district, a center of stoneware production in the decades before the Civil War, along with some sketches and photos hanging on the walls. It’s amazing, and a wonderful exhibit for the family.
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 inscribed verses on many of his jars, even though literacy among enslaved people was criminalized at the time. The vessels bear witness to the joys, traumas, and lived experience of enslavement that echoed the prose of abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. These pieces testify to the lived experiences and material knowledge of the enslaved people in the area.
However, “Hear Me Now” is centered on the artwork “Why Born Enslaved!” by the French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. Created in 1868, 20 years after emancipation was achieved in the French Atlantic, the sculpture made its debut in Paris against the backdrop of European colonialism, imperialism and the recent end of slavery in the United States. The Carpeaux bust of a Black woman whose bare arms and torso are bound with rope (not shown) is well known to Western audiences. There were many versions produced during and after his lifetime. The subject’s resisting pose and defiant expression tells a story. I thought, “She could be me.” She resembled some family members. The other sculptures that were extremely relatable were the exquisite busts of a Black man and woman in the center of the exhibit, and a Black woman displayed across from them wearing gold earrings. A photo of Louise King in 1864 by Jacques-Philippe Potteau (French, 1807-1876) was striking.
“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.
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.
An educational program sponsored by Thelma and AC Hudgins also accompanies the exhibit. It is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
On Saturday, Dec. 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. Thelma and AC Hudgins make educational programs possible.
A catalogue featuring essays, interviews and photos accompanies the exhibit and is available at the Met Store. For more information visit www.metmuseum.org.