On view through December 16, 2012

Face Jugs is the first exhibition in nearly 30 years to bring together an important collection of African-American face vessels.

The exhibition celebrates the aesthetic power of these art forms and suggests new ways to consider their uses and cultural meanings. Perhaps they were not just functional as jugs, but also as encoded messages, or even as powerful ritualistic objects.

The Edgefield District (present-day Aiken) was home to many potteries in the mid-19th century, due to its natural resources of rich clay. Large-scale operations relied on enslaved Africans—and later freedmen—for labor. But evidence suggests that these workers produced more than commercial stoneware. They also produced face vessels in much smaller quantities. These jugs were not for distribution, but for themselves.

Slaves had no legal or civil rights, nor were they typically permitted to express themselves freely. But African Americans found creative ways to sustain their customs and beliefs. One strategy was to incorporate hidden meanings in their objects, songs and stories. Face vessels may have functioned as cleverly coded objects within the African-American community.

Nkisi figureThey may have also been linked closely to African cultural traditions. In 1858, a slave ship anchored off the Georgia coast. Many of the slaves it held were from various Kongo societies. Over 100 of these slaves were sent to the Edgefield region, where some were put to work at the potteries.

Within Kongo cultures, powerful diviners and shamans used spirit containers, called nkisi, to channel their distinctive powers. The diviner used the nkisi to initiate contact with the spirit world in an effort to either heal, harm or protect another individual through a ritual known today as a "conjure."

Exhibition supported by:

McKissick Museum, University of South Carolina Allen and Marcia Montgomery Hennessy

Additional Sponsors:

Charlton Hall Auctioneers Ms. Ann Marie Stieritz and Mr. John B. Carran Susan Thorpe and John Baynes