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Magnificent, mysterious designs in American Folk Art revealed in African iconography
a composite of Colonial American pottery designs on top and adinkra designs of the people of Ghana, West Africa on the bottom below the pottery.

By: Pearl Duncan

NEW YORK, NY.- Communities around the United States celebrated June nineteenth in historic, cultural and art events. The commemorative celebrations known as Juneteenth represent the date and delayed knowledge about an important historical event. Upcoming Colonial American stoneware auctions in July will also reveal new knowledge about history and art.

In colonial times, news of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, liberation from slavery, finally reached African-Americans and others of Galveston, Texas in June 1865. The notification resounded in the nation. Today, news of important artists and art influences in Colonial American seep out equally slowly.

To celebrate these new artistic discoveries, museums, auction houses and art dealers are working to credit and acknowledge American folk artists by revisiting the attributions of Colonial American art images. They are adding the names and identities of individuals, groups and cultures omitted from the historical art records. Some of the newly-found individuals and cultures are African-American. July’s folk art stoneware auctions this year will see some major changes.

A leading auction house spearheading the rediscovery of the nation’s earliest stoneware potteries is Crocker Farm. The company has researched newly discovered stoneware and incorporated details and attributions into what’s known about American stoneware folk artists. A company auctioneer, Brandt Zipp, describes some of the earliest stoneware highlights and images that experts have not been able to identify. But even the experts have missed some important African-American artistic connections. In a video about the art on a piece of very old colonial stoneware pottery, he says the earliest pottery entrepreneurs and artists immigrated from Germany, which they did: Crolius and Remmey in New York and Morgan and Kemple in New York and New Jersey.

But there were also free and enslaved potters and artisans from Africa working alongside the German potters. Having researched blended Colonial American ancestors, I add new news to the images and artwork still unidentified on America’s colonial stoneware pottery. I researched the colonial pottery shards archaeologists found on the mysterious 18th-century World Trade Center ship and am writing a book. As trade progressed in the 1700s, square-rigged colonial ships delivered clay to the kilns, and ship owners purchased well-crafted artistic utilitarian stoneware from colonial factories. My article here in Art Daily identified one entrepreneur-abolitionist, artist-potter, the African-American, Thomas Commeraw, whose artwork has recently been identified.

And now I cite the images of Colonial African immigrants, enslaved people from the Akan and Gyaman medieval groups in Ghana and the Côte d'Ivoire in West Africa to clarify some of this nation’s lost or unknown artistic stoneware images.

In auctioneer Brandt Zipp’s video, he says artwork is unidentified on the earliest pottery from the 1750s. He now identifies the artwork as having come from one of the New York potteries. He traces his finger across the preserved pottery and describes the artwork, an “incised flower basket unheard of in American pottery design.” He says it was clearly done by a skilled potter.

On the reverse side of the pottery, he traces the design on the colonial jar, which sold for $28,750 at auction in March of this year. He describes the image “on back as kind of a bizarre design.” He says, “It seems to me that a young apprentice or child executed the design.” Pointing out that the art on the reverse side is not as finely done as the basket with flowers on the front of the jar, he says this may have been an abstract design someone was playing around with. A doctor called the image a fetus in the womb.

So although the auctioneer identified similar art on pottery found in the African Burial Ground near the German potteries, he attributes the blue incised lines around the neck and base of the jar to the German craftsmen, but was not able to identify the other images. So I do so on Juneteenth week when we are recovering lost history and culture.

The unrecognized image described as a fetus, looks like one of the Akan people’s most important icons. The image is similar to West Africa’s Ghanaian Akan design of Gye Nyame, the Supreme God, representing birth, faith and life. The woven basket and a plant, a tree, also represent the living, life and survival.

Until 1991 when American Colonial pottery was discovered at the African Burial Ground adjoining Potters Field in Lower Manhattan in New York, much of this pottery with this art was attributed to a Colonial war hero, Captain James Morgan and a handful of other New Jersey potters from the New Jersey Cheesequake pottery. But that is changing with new archaeological awareness and new research. On this jar showcased in the video which auctioned for tens of thousands of dollars, the drawings the auctioneer calls flowerheads are similar to the rosettes stamped on New York Colonial pottery. However, similar rosettes are found on both earlier German pottery, and on Medieval African pottery and fabrics.

Even more important, other images incised on the jar, images the auctioneer calls, “bizarre” and “weird design,” are also African. They are similar to images found in the art of the Akan and the Gyaman people of Ghana and the Côte d'Ivoire in West Africa.

It is quite possible that the art had more meaning for the enslaved and free African-Americans who worked alongside the German potters, especially since as I discussed in my earlier article, some of these potters were related to the German potters. In Ghana’s Akan culture, the potters worked alongside the weavers, and created similar adinkra images on their works. The fern-like tree of life image represents survival by God’s grace. The woven basket image represents knowledge, what’s known and what’s authentic. So it’s gratifying to add knowledge to the art of American blended family of folk artists.

The most well-known art and a major image on early Colonial American pottery that’s been attributed by archaeologists, historians, auctioneers, art dealers and museum curators to the New York German potters and the Captain James Morgan and other New Jersey potters from the Cheesequake, New Jersey pottery is called “watch spring.” But the watch spring design, a coiled spring and variations of the design, hark to the African Ghanaian Akan adinkra design called Dwennimmen, ram’s horn. Ram’s horn designs occur in many cultures, but in West Africa’s Akan they represent strength and humbleness.

American Colonial stoneware now commands thousands of dollars for important historic and artistic pieces. Two major pottery traditions, German and Ghanaian encountered each other, but because so many Colonial American artists and entrepreneurs owned other artists and artisans as slaves, only the knowledge of one survived. It will take time and effort to sort through the various artisans and their contributions. People who worked in the stoneware factories as African slaves, as unpaid or underpaid free African-American artisans, as indentured Irish, German and other workers contributed art that may never be credited to them. But gradually, that is changing.

The stories of African-American artists in the American Colonies have been lost and hidden, because so many of these artists were owned by others. Because artistic influences flow from different sources, and various places and cultures, much of their work has been blended into the American art polyglot. Their art has been credited to other artists.

In American stoneware folk art, where African-American artists were major artists and artisans, current dealers and auction houses have stepped up, done the research, and are crediting one of these artisans, the talented New York Colonial potter and entrepreneur, Thomas Commeraw. (Art Daily, May 31st) Because much of the credit says, “attributed to” when pottery is unmarked or undated, art dealers can begin to reflect the history by attributing more works to the workers who produced stoneware in the major colonial potteries. Their names have been lost, but the images they transported from ancestral places remain, and can now be “attributed to.”

One of the main images that has not been attributed in American Colonial stoneware art is the “sankofa” design of the Akan potters of Ghana. Two images of the design are now popular, the sankofa scrolls surrounding a heart, and the sankofa bird, reaching its long curved beak behind to capture an egg above its back and its tail. Cultural anthropological texts such as R.S. Rattray’s “Religion and Art in Ashanti,” detailed the art of medieval pottery making and the ancestral symbols and designs of these Africans. Many brought the designs with them to America when they were transported to the Colonies. Just as I researched the nicknames and proverbs of my Colonial American ancestors in Colonial and Medieval Ghana, confirmed our family’s ancestral names and nicknames, then compared the DNA of descendants on three continents, I researched the meaning of the sankofa and more than sixty-two other adinkra images.

My African-American mother’s nickname, Docki, pronounced Dauki, by her Ghanaian ancestors in Jamaica, means past, present and future in Ghana’s Akan lexicon. Past, present and future loom large in African art. The sankofa image, which means return and retrieve it, captures this link between the past, present and future, and even more importantly, it means that the past that has been lost can be recovered and brought alive in the present and the future.

The heartlike sankofa image and the bird mean, learn from the past. When I researched my ancestors, I found men and women from Ghana, West Africa, whose art and proverbs tell life stories. I also found nobles from Scotland whose icons represent medieval builders. On my ancestral coat of arms I was granted by Queen Elizabeth and Scotland’s Court of the Lord Lyon, I replaced my noble European ancestors’ fleur-de-lis with my African ancestors’ flower of the tree of life. I retained their royal lion, rampant, standing with forepaws raised.

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