THE ISHEAGU AND UGHEVWUGHE TRADITIONAL POTTERS IN DELTA STATE_ A STUDY OF THEIR METHODS AND STYLISTIC UNIQUENESS
Pottery, the man’s earliest surviving craft, has been in existence from prehistoric times to the present1. Vestigial potsherds are evident in archaeological sites, and living pottery is still present all over the world. Apparently, the art of pottery is thought to have been grafted from the ancient craft of basketry, comparatively in respect of shape and forms2. The embryonic strength of potters was developed and blossomed around 500B.C in Egypt, Palestine and the Tigres – Euphrates area3. Urns were the remarkable products of the potters of the Neolithic era. They functioned as caskets for the preservation of ashes of the deceased. The culture of urn usage was spotlighted way back in Egypt, around 4000 B.C4. Local potters, working in earnest to revive and rekindle the tradition of pottery as a craft, worth appreciating. It stylistically exhibits the uniqueness, aesthetics and functionality of the products that trigger the daily existence of man.
Categorically, pottery ranges from the purely functional to the purely aesthetic; a reflection of beauty and, of course, a necessity. Since the discovery of clay for the making of pottery, it has basically played a vital role as a medium of artistic expression, spearheading the realization of man’s desire to have a container of some sort. Even in the nomadic hunting economy, man, being an acquisitive animal, had always desired a container for gathering of food, both its collection and storage.5 According to Kidder, the making of pottery was a sign that man was moving out of savagery and beyond a hand to mouth existence6. Since the discovery of clay and the technology with which it is manipulated, it has proved to be more essential to man than any single substance and the ease with which it can be shaped has led to its use for an astonishing variety of purposes in almost every community in Nigeria.
The root of pottery making in Nigeria is traceable to the early fourth millennium, confirming fired clay to be an enduring material.7 Technically, pottery, no matter where or when it is produced, is usually one of these earthenwares, stonewares or porcelains, and the differences are in their stylistic approach.8 Nigeria has not been left behind in the practice of this craft, pottery. It occupies a very visible position geographically. It is therefore recognized among various creative activities that have engaged practitioners in various communities.
Pottery was a widespread craft in Nigeria, with every community satisfying its needs. In Nigeria today, there are numerous pottery centres. Some of these are located in Suleja, Niger State, Ishiagu, Ebonyi State, Inyi in Enugu State, various communities in Delta State, some towns in Ekiti State and Ilorin in Kwara State. Consequently, the various communities mentioned are noted for their unique imprint, revealing clear evidence in pottery production both in forms and shapes.
Although the Nigerian potters make pottery for almost the same function, it is substantially obvious that the techniques involved in production vary, and as a result there are bound to be some differences in methods applied. The introduction of diverse styles has made Nigeria famous in world culture through her ceramic wares.9 Thus, the availability of clay in many communities contributed to this achievement and has emboldened potters to maintain this standard. No doubt, the development of the art of pottery was a slow and gradual process. But working with rudimentary tools, they have been able to develop their skills to the high level of creative pottery making.
The culture of pottery in Delta State is found among the Urhobo, Isoko, Itsekiri, Izon, Ukwuani and the Igbo speaking people. Some of the pottery traditions associated with these ethnic groups mentioned are found in the communities like Amai, Ughevwughe, Orugbo, Isheagu, Otor – Edo and Jeremi. The amount of pots produced in these communities has transformed the potters into professionals. They have left farming to concentrate on this craft. These tireless potters have earnestly demonstrated with rigour and vigour their desire to maintain their ancestral culture. However, of all the above pottery communities, focus will be on Isheagu and Ughevwughe local potters because they have heightened the standard of pottery in Nigeria to the extent that with the use of regional zoomorphic iconographs, their pottery products, are much sought after in other parts of the country.
Pottery is considered to be one of the oldest craft widely practiced in Nigeria and the entire world. This is so in every place where one finds abundant clay that facilitates production. Its practice spread through the various communities in Delta State. This shows that in most traditional societies in Nigeria, pottery wares are essential commodities used in homes for one activity or the other. For example, it could be for eating, storage or for cooking. Pottery is solely practiced by women in Delta State; a situation that is apparent in other pottery centers in Nigeria. This statement is confirmed by Fowowe: “Pottery making is an ancient craft practiced mostly by the women folk in every nook and cranny of the country.”10 This situation is also supported by Nsentip in his study of the Ibibio Pottery, “Pottery making traditionally in Ibibio society until date is a principal craft of Ibibio Women.”11
However, apprenticeship is largely non-existent among the potters in Delta state. Many of these potters believe that the art of pottery making is inherent in them. This therefore, qualifies every family member born in the home of a potter to possess pottery skills. The Delta State potter can easily be described as the sole manager of her profession, contrary to what may be the case in any small scale enterprise. The women walk for miles in search of clay and the right kind of wood for firing their pots. They return to their homes burdened with great loads on their heads or bicycles which are used to carry the loads, only to begin their tedious task of preparing clay for their work. The potter then prepares the grog which she wedges into the clay before modelling.
Grog preparation is another rigorous task, involving the crushing of potsherds inside a wooden mortar with the pestle, until they become powder. As Beatrice Obi notes, “the most tedious aspect in pottery making is pounding of grog”.12 It is important that these potters are aware of the need to add grog to clay in order to enhance the texture of the clay. The grog also plays the role of reducing the drying and firing shrinkages of the clay, thus avoiding the risk of losing the wares in the process of firing. It is remarkable to note that inadequate measurement of grog can result to large extent of dunting. As Oyema Augusta13 notes, “the grog added was not the same proportion with the clay and as a result of this act all these pots got broken during firing, nevertheless I will convert it to grog”.14 However, it is obvious that the potters do not throw away broken wares since they serve other purposes. The potters personally take the wares to the market and occasionally big trucks convey the products to other communities.
For the Delta State potters, production processes can be classified into four: sourcing for the principal material clay, clay preparation and production which would include modeling and building techniques, surface embellishment, drying and firing, and lastly marketing. The commonest design applied by the women is done with a tool woven from a rope called “Nziza.” This tool is rolled around the damped surface of any of the pots to be designed. Some potters deviate from the use of the common tool for decoration by using seeds and any pleasantly textured objects to design their products.
Many of these tools are simple and are mainly improvisations. They can be classified into four, according to utility: Pottery stands which are pieces are of potsherds acting as potters wheel, smoothing materials and tools for decoration. There are also tools for adding necks and rims to pots. The building method employed by the Delta state potters is basically the hand building technique. This is a technique whereby pots are manipulated with free hand without the assistance of any mechanical device. The building method employed is differentiated into pinching, coiling and the mould techniques. Of these three techniques, coiling is the most popular among the potters as it enables the building of pots of any shape and size. Their drying and firing are a replication of the same practices from one potter to the other. Firing is usually carried out in the open air.
STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM
Although substantial literatures exist in Nigeria on pottery practice generally, much has not been done on the documentation of Ughevwughe and Isheagu pottery traditions. It becomes necessary therefore to unveil the potters of these communities, their works and their influences.
AIM AND OBJECTIVES
The study will be made to satisfy the following objectives:
- To provide an in-depth analysis of the stylistic uniqueness of Isheagu and Ughevwughe potters.
- To unveil the biography of some of the practitioners and highlighting some of their work
- To pinpoint the motivating force behind their pottery productions.
- To determine the impact of modernity or change on their productions and
- To produce a study which will add to the knowledge of functional history of modern Nigerian art.
The research has encountered some difficulties. For instance, there are little materials or literature on the documentation of Ughevwughe and Isheagu Pottery traditions. Information gathering was also difficult because of the busy nature of the local potters who engage in other activities like farming. The diverse ethnic groups in Delta State made communication a barrier; more so when considering the fact that some of the pottery practitioners are illiterate, with a few having only elementary education.
The study is restricted to two pottery communities: Isheagu and Ughevwughe out of many in Delta state, to allow an intensive study, rather than a mere superficial or general examination of all the pottery areas of Delta State.
The research will rely on primary and secondary sources for data collection. The primary sources exploited include: visits to the practitioners of pottery in both communities, oral interviews and photo records of these practitioners, and physical examination and photographing of some of their works. Secondary sources on other pottery communities included published, or written, materials such as books, journals and unpublished projects in some tertiary institutions.
This work has been arranged into six chapters. The introductory chapter is devoted largely to the background of the study. Chapter two discusses Delta State Potters: A General Survey. In chapter three, the potters of Isheagu and Ughevwughe are revealed, while chapter four discusses their works. The influences of modernity on pottery practice in Isheagu and Ughevwugha are examined in chapter five and then the conclusion.
A lot of research has been carried out on traditional pottery of Nigeria, but much has not be done on the potters of Isheagu and Ughevwughe in Delta state which is the focus of this study. Fowowe in his article, “Changing Phases of Tradition” discusses the present state of pottery practice in Nigeria.15 He states that the art of pottery making is an ancient practice among the Nigerian people, traceable to prehistoric time. According to him, traditional pottery in Nigeria has its originality and uniqueness, and of course traditional potters have strived to maintain their ideology, sticking to their methods of production yet creating new and exciting pots. This work, exposes the difficulties traditional potters in Nigeria, undergo in manipulating clay to build pots yet, they still maintain very high creative and quality standards. This work is a broad survey of ceramic practice in Nigeria. It has not focused on any particular ceramic tradition, which this research stands to address.
Traditional pottery, practice which is still very much alive today, is due to the availability16 of clay in most communities in Nigeria, which is the major material in pottery production. Ojie17, in her article “Historical Perspective of Selected Pottery Producing Centers in Delta State,” strengthens this statement by showing that the immense tradition of pot making in various communities in Delta State lies in the availability of clay, and the possibility of acquiring it has emboldened the practitioners to keep delivering works in various communities.
The writer discusses the continuity of pottery making in Delta State, because of the availability of the major material, clay, in abundance. This work is however an aerial survey of pottery centres in Delta State, with no focus on any particular tradition.
Abamwa, in her work titled “Urhobo Women Art”18 discusses extensively the role of women with creative skills in reviving the Urhobo cultural heritage. She describes their participation in pottery, body painting and scarification and mat weaving. She also raises the issue of pottery being practiced by women alone in these localities. This predominant involvement of women than men in traditional pottery is not unique to women in Delta State or Nigeria. It is a global peculiarity, that traditional pottery is almost exclusive to women. This work generally focuses on all genres of art, practiced by Urhobo women, it only gives pottery a glancing attention.
In another work, “Pottery: A case study of Otor-Edo Community in Delta State”,19 Abanwa discusses the high quality display of creative skills by women in this particular community, in their pottery. She lays emphasis on their adaptive repetoive: their ability to improvise using readily available materials to create surface decorations on their pots. The work has a narrow focus which is the embellishment of pots by these women.
In a collaborative study, “A Survey of Pottery Tradition In Nrobo pottery centre, Nsukka”, by Agu and Ali, they discuss the procurement and preparation of clay, decoration and firing, forms, classification and functions. This is an incisive study of pottery in one community in South East Nigeria. Their investigation collaborates the fact that pottery is an art exclusive to women. However, their study shows that the prospecting and procurement of clay is exclusive the preserve of men in Nrobo. Their work, in spite of its conciseness, is quite resourceful in terms of scope and depth. It is however outside the geography of my purview.20
Oyelola, in her work titled “Nigerian Craft” extensively discusses that, simple tools at their disposal are used judiciously to accomplish their needs and give expression to the aesthetic impulse and cultural values.21 Though the research did not discuss the biography of traditional potters, it has created awareness that found objects around the traditional potters are instrumental to the uniqueness of their pots. Although this essay does not address individual practitioners, it is still useful as it captures these practice of using found objects that replicate themselves among potters in different pottery communities.
Most significantly was, Fowowe, in his writing “Changing Phases of Tradition” clearly states that traditional pots are fired in an open ground with sticks and grasses and the subjection of wares to heat turns the clay to black colour22. He explains that after firing, it results to a hard and rock-like state which obviously changes its colour.
The publication reveals that, traditional potters undergo bisque stage of firing, without the introduction of glaze in their pots, rather colourants from local herbs are used for burnishing their wares. It is a good study on the traditional potters, though informally trained in pottery making, yet they posses the technicalities in firing pots. What is very interesting in the publication is the method of finishing, which is the use of colourants from local herbs as glaze. The research is quite relevant to this work because it shows the creative and stylistic uniqueness of the traditional potters of Isheagu and Ughevwughe maintaining their age-long practice.
Adeyeye, in his work titled “Exploring the staked and bundled traditional pots of Ekiti State for Conceptual Ceramics Forms and Ideas” states that, after firing and glazing which are the final stages of production in pottery, pots are sorted out, stacked and bundled according to size, forms and stored in individual or common potters’ hut until they are conveyed to the market.23 According to him, pots are made for personal use, for informal sale within the village or carried to the neighbouring markets by the potters themselves. Although this essay does not address individual practitioners, it is still useful as it shows the practice of the Isheagu and Ughevwughe potters in Delta State.
In his study titled “Yoruba Pottery”, Fatunsin notes that, traditional potters although informally trained, yet they have protocol in their pots production, he examines that, pots are stylistically decorated for various purposes such as aesthetic, functional, economic and religious reasons. However, Fatunsin made it clear that the designs or form of a pot determine the purpose it is to serve. Traditional potters in most cases try to classify their wares according to the function they perform.24 The findings of the study show that local potters generally have the awareness to reflect the functionality in every pot they produce. Though a good research relevant to this study, but the work did not examine the present state of religious pots going into extinction. Due to the emergence of Christianity, local potters have a tradition of producing a specific pot depending on the needs of the people, basically utility and aesthetic pots are more produced, since the need for them is on a higher demand, an observation relevant to some aspect of this study.
Another thesis that is very significant to the review is titled “Symbolism In Contemporary and Traditional Igbo Pottery” by Ali. It traces the development of pottery making from the traditional to the modern25. He observes that local pots produced manually have attained a position in the society. He also asserts that the usage of pots attracts some elements of pride. That is, what was originally produced to act as ritual, and ceremonial pots are being used in most homes as decorative or ornamental pieces. Though a good research, it did not provide a conclusive remark on the importance of pots in traditional religion.
Nwokike, in his “Growth of Pottery in Awka and Its Relevance in Traditional Religion” reveals categories of shrine and ancestral cults with variety of pots used.26 It also shows how symbolic, social and ceremonial ritual pots can be in the Nigerian context. a detailed work, though it restricts itself to the importance of pots in traditional religion. It does not focus on the fact that, ritual pots are now stylistically classified as decorative or ornamental pieces.
Fowowe in his writing “A study of the Origin, Development and Significance of Traditional pottery in Southern Nigeria”, reviews the aspects of patronage, and this prompted him to say that pottery seems to have an edge over other traditional arts and crafts. He however raises a question: For how long will traditional pottery continue to enjoy this patronage in the face of highly sophisticated technology? 27 It is good to note that local potters are acclaimed because of their tireless approach to pottery making. It is a good study, a comparative analysis of other traditional arts and pottery making is exposed. Cardew in his article,” Pottery Techniques in Nigeria”, is an original work on the subject, in that he appreciates the technological know-how of the local potters.28 He attests to the durability of local wares functioning over an open wood fire, without risk of loosing the pot. Also considering the fact that local pottery is basically manual in terms of production, yet they do so much better than many whites who call themselves potters. It is a good study of trained potters and the informally trained potters, their styles and techniques. Though a good research, it fails to acknowledge the numerous challenges faced by traditional potters. Notwithstanding, pottery making in Nigeria still faces some challenges, which other researchers have made great contributions. this can be seen in Bassey’s work, titled “Ibibio Pottery: A Focus on Ndon Ebom.” It focuses on the practice and problems of pottery tradition of Ndon Ebom. He remarks that the introduction of plastic and aluminum cooking wares has drastically reduced the patronages of local pots29. it reveals the extent to which the emergence of plastic and aluminum wares have affected the general acceptance of local pots. Although it does not concern itself with the individual potters of the community, it is still relevant to some aspects of this study.
Even with this challenges, faced by traditional potters, a research that is very relevant “The Impact of Technology on Traditional Pottery in Nigeria” by Fowowe, clearly explains that traditional pottery practice in Nigeria still has a lot to offer despite the influence of technology.30
“Ojah Oke Pottery in Akoko Edo Local Government Area of Edo State”31, by Uzzi, views it from another angle. It documents the general practice of pottery in Nigeria and also notes that the mass movement of people from rural areas to urban areas in search of white collar job is affecting pottery business31. Furthermore, due to the implementation of formal education, children have the opportunity to pursue diverse career other than being tied to pottery. The research is quite relevant to this study, it exposes the youths’ lack of interest in pottery making due to the strenuous nature, with little or no profit realized. This observation is relevant in some ways to this study.
Conclusively, Abanwa in her article, “Pottery As Instrument for Economic Empowerment in Isheagu” enumerates the effect of technology on pottery. She states that many communities have been making a living from pottery; one of such communities is Isheagu. And they are noted for elevating/promoting the name of the town in some respects.32. This is another work that is fairly relevant to the study. Interestingly, it shows that even with the influence of technology, the aged women are still elevating the cultural heritage of Isheagu. However, she concludes by quoting Oloidi that the emergence of technology should be the “birth of creativity”.38 This could be achieved if the necessary facilities for pottery production is implemented in Isheagu, thereby enriching the level of productivity.
- A. K. Fatunsi, Yoruba Pottery, (Lagos: National Commission for Monument, 1992), pp. 7-18.
- D. Baker, Pottery Today (Great Britain: W. & J. Mackey, 1961), pp. 1-22.
- G. Nelson, Ceramics: A Potters Handbook”, (New York: Holt Rinehart and Norton, 1966), pp. 1-5.
- R. Charleston, World Ceramics, (London: Hamlin, 1979), pp. 9-13.
- R. Charleston, World Ceramics, (London: Hamlin), 1979, p.10.
- J. Kidder, Prehistoric Japanese Arts: Jommon Pottery, (U.S.A., Kodansha
International, 1971), pp. 7-13.
- C. N. Ojie, “Historical Perspective of Selected Pottery Producing Centres in Delta State”, (Abuja: Design History in Nigeria, National Gallery of Art, 2002), p. 79.
- Ibid. p. 77
- D. M. Billington, The Technique of Pottery, (London: B. T. Batsford Ltd,
1962), p. 6.
- M. O. Fowowe, “Changing Phases of Tradition: The Origin and Growth of Contemporary Pottery in Nigeria”, (CPAN Journal of Ceramics:, 2004), pp. 5-6.
- U. U. Nsentip, “Ibibio Traditional Pottery and its Roles in Contemporary Society”. (ASHKWU Journal of Ceramics, June, 2007), Vol. 2., No. 1., p 55.
- Beatrice Obi in an interview. Isheagu, June 5th, 2008.
- Augusta Oyema, oral interview. Isheagu, August 7th, 2008
- M. O. Fowowe, “Changing Phases of Tradition: The Origin and Growth of Contemporary Pottery in Nigeria”, (CPAN Journal of Ceramics:, 2004), pp. 52.
- C. N. Ojie, “Historical Perspective of Selected Pottery Producing Centres in Delta State”, (Abuja: Design History in Nigeria, National Gallery of Art, 2002), p 77.
- Ibid. p 81.
- O. E. Abamwa, “Urhobo Women’s Art.” YCA 2001) Vol. 2., No. 1 & 2, pp. 79-86.
- O. E. Abamwa, “Pottery: A Case Study of Otor-Edo Community” (Abuja:
Design History in Nigeria National Gallery of Art, 2002), pp. 9, 79-86,
20 C. S. Agu and V. E. Ali: A Survey of Pottery Tradition in Nrobo a paper presented during the 2007 Ceran National Conference, Delta State University, Abrakka
- P. Oyelola, Nigerian Craft (London: Macmillan Education Ltd, 1981), p. 10.
22 M. O. Fowowe, “Changing Phases of Tradition: The Origin and Growth of Contemporary Pottery in Nigeria”, (CPAN Journal of Ceramics:, No. 1 Nov. 2004), pp. 5-6.
23 Adeyeye, “Exploring the Stacked and bundled Traditional Pots of Ekiti State for Conceptual Ceramic Forms and Ideas, Unpublished M.FA project, 2008, pp. 6-7.
24 A. K. Fatunsi, Yoruba Pottery, (Lagos: National Commission for Monument, 1992), p. 15.
- V. E. Ali, “Symbolism in Contemporary and Traditional Igbo Pottery” Environ, Journal of Environmental Design, Zaria, ABU Vol. 1, Nos 2 and 3. Nov. 1998-Nov. 1999. P. 85
- C. Nwokike, “The Growth of Pottery in Awka and its relevance in Traditional Religion”, ASHKWU Journal of Ceramics, Vol. 4, No. 2, June, 2007.
- M. O. Fowowe, A Study of the Origins, Development and Significance of Traditional Pottery in Southern Nigeria, (Ann Arbor: MI. University Microfilms International, 1987), p.50.
- M. Cardew, “Pottery Technique in Nigeria” (Lagos: Nigeria Pottery, 1970), p. 9.
- E. Bassey, “Ibibio Pottery Heritage” (in T. Akinbogun et al) Nigerian Crafts and Techniques Akure, FUTA, 2004. p. 52.
- M. O. Fowowe, “The Impact of Technology on Traditional Pottery in Nigeria” (Akure: Nigeria Crafts and Technology, 2004), pp. 22-27.
- F. Uzzi, “Ojah Oke Pottery in Akoko Edo Local Government Area of Edo State” (in T. Akinbogun et al) Nigerian Crafts and Techniques Akure, 2004. P. 58
- O. E. Abamwa,” Pottery as Instrument for Economic Empowerment in Isheagwu”, African: Art and Natural Development, 2007, pp. 344-346.
- O. Oloidi, Unpublished Lecture Note, 2008.
THE ISHEAGU AND UGHEVWUGHE TRADITIONAL POTTERS IN DELTA STATE_ A STUDY OF THEIR METHODS AND STYLISTIC UNIQUENESS