The Arts

July 7, 2011

Art of traditional pottery in Nigeria

Pottery is one of the craft of the ancient Nigeria that is still being practised in most parts of the country today. It is Nigeria’s most cultural material that has caught the attention and interest of early British archaeologists

Pottery is the act of making earthenware containers. It is the art of forming objects of clay in a moist plastic condition and then drying them by either eposure to sun and air,fire, baking in kilns or ovens.

A decorative pot in the process of production

Finally, they are formed in various types like cooking vessels, food bowls, storage red pots, drinking cups, funerary urns, flower pots, decorative pots and frying or drying pots etc.

Pottery is one of the craft of the ancient Nigeria that is still being practised in most parts of the country today. It is Nigeria’s most cultural material that has caught the attention and interest of early British archaeologists in Nigeria like Professor Thurstan – Shaw, whose work of excavation of these precious baked – clay objects has been outstanding, but humongous and elephantine. Pottery has been described as one of the cheapest arts being practised in Nigeria and heavily dominated by women.

The reason is not far – fetched. The raw materials used in making pottery are clay and water which are common as well as found throughout the length and breadth of the country. They are not scarce commodity, and machines are not used in its production.

Unique nature of pottery

Thus, pottery making is ubiquitously practised in virtually all the ethnic groups of Nigeria including: Ibo, Yoruba, Hausa, etc.

Pottery in its traditional setting is unique in the sense that it is manually – made and so, no duplicate of it can be made or found else – where except by the potter himself or herself.

The works of the colonial archaelogists in excavating most of the material evidences of pre – historic times have proved that pottery making had been in existence in most parts of Nigeria, dating to 3000BC.

The earliest examples of pottery making in Nigeria were found in Afikpo in Ebonyi State. A British archaeologist of renown, Professor Thurstan – Shaw was known to have excavated some material remains of pottery at Iwo – Eleru in Yoruba land which were older, the same is true with ritual pottery at Igbo – Ukwu in Igbo land which he also excavated in company with some National Museum professionals.

Nigeria is a multi–ethnic country with varied climate, vegetation and landscape where peoples of various ethnic groups with diverse cultures live. The patterns of life of peoples of Nigeria are primarily determined by the environment.

For example, in far northern part of the country, the climate is conducive for grazing in Sahelian  plains of Northern Nigeria, and this makes it suitable for the rearing of herd which are tended by the nomadic Fulanis.

Thus, since they are always on the move with their horde of sheep and cattle, wandering in desperate search for water and pasture for them, the nomadic Fulanis need, as in the olden days, simple and light domestic utensils which are not only movable but resistant to shocks and breakages.

Calabash vessels and leather works among others fall into this category of household or domestic products for nomadic life of the Fulanis.

Farther south, where there is a change of climate and vegetation, are founded thick forest areas which are salutary for farming, hence the inhabitants are mostly farmers with more settled life than their nomadic Fulani counterparts in the North.

The household vessels that are predominantly in use among this set of people with settled life include large and heavy domestic utensils such as mortar and pestle, for pounding cassava and yam, or big and deep clay pot with wide mouth that is as fat and round as a pregnant goat, for fermenting cassava to make “foo – foo” or storing water for drinking, bathing and washing.

Generally, pottery – making involves digging the clay at water – side or stream, carrying it home, pounding it, soaking it, shifting or separating it from foreign matters, kneading it, shaping it, decorating it, and firing the pot etc. The making of pottery includes the following basic methods namely: shaping (modelling), moulding, decorating and firing.

The clay must first of all undergo some sort of purification before the pottery making commences.

This is because raw clay contains a lot of impurities like sand, rocks and vegetable matter which need to be removed. After purification, the pure clay is then mixed with water to make it malleable, and then kneaded to remove all air bubbles.

Shaping can be accomplished by use of hand. The hand – process requires simple pinching a depression in a ball of clay into a desired shape.

In moulding method, a rigid mould like old pots or baskets are used. The soft clay is pressed into the mould and allowed to dry or a liquid clay, called slip may be poured into a mould that absorbs moisture as the clay slowly dries.

For decorating method, the object formed can then be decorated by merely scratching designs of the potter’s choice into the surface of the pot.

Decoration may entail cutting into the surface of the pot geometrical patterns with a sharp knife. A potter can also accomplish decoration by rubbing patterns of his or her choice on to the surface of the clay pot with smooth pebble.

Decoration varies from one ethnic group to another or from one area to another or from one potter to the other, to show – case the culture of the area or tribe. Thus, the patterns of decoration of pottery at Afikpo in Ebonyi state are different from the patterns of pottery at Ilorin in Kwara State or Gwari in Niger State.

Sometimes design can consist of circles or loops. A potter may draw a pattern of leaves or animals or insects like lizards, scorpions and birds as we can see in Gwari water pots (Niger State). Decoration is not only limited to the surface body of pottery. The inside of the lid may be decorated also. The decoration of pot serves dual purposes.

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