Ethiopian Pottery and Handicrafts

Pottery and handicrafts

Picture by Yohannes Mulugeta

Background: The information used to write this article was sourced from Mr. Mulu Yeneabat’s Graduate studies paper titled Pottery Production An Asset for Women’s Livelihood, Case Study on Kechene Women Potters in Addis Ababa, published in June 2007.

Handicrafts and their creator’s stories mirror Ethiopian history and the industry today. The artisans produced essential items for sustenance (think of the injera clay plate). Still, they were seen as “non-essential” to demonically possessed. Moreover, the handicraft sector is riddled with inexplicable paradoxes. If you take basketry and cotton spinning, it will earn the women practicing this respect. The people who create clothing items and baskets out of these materials would be seen as anything between the devil’s consorts and inferior. The same goes for people engaged in the gold and silver smithery, which are later used in religious ceremonies. Ethiopia: 13 months of sunshine, home of the Lucy and the ark. A country full of contradictions.

Picture by Yohannes Mulugeta

To say that Ethiopian creatives have had a tumultuous relationship with the public at large is an understatement. In the past, artisans engaged in handicrafts were not allowed to own land. According to Quirin (reference from the book ‘The process of caste formation in Ethiopia’), it was because of a decree by Emperor Yeshaq (Ethiopian king who ruled between 1413-30) that only Christians could own land. For some Jews, this wouldn’t do. And they were amongst the majority of artisans. This created a sort of division of labor amongst men ad women of that community. The men were carpenters and builders, while the women did pottery. Which made some of the association Potter= Felasha.
The rest is assumed to have something to do with the mystery of turning mud into clay, rock into iron. For the less learned, this was impossible, and how does that happen? Of course, with supernatural help with evil intentions.

Picture by Yohannes Mulugeta

While others root the cause in religion. Cain and Abel. When Cain killed Abel, he was cursed into a land that will bear no more and had to seek employment in the creative sector. There should be a form for it: Reasons for unemployment:

  1. Lack of qualifications
  2. Jobs not available
  3. Corruption
  4. Cursed to be here

Anyway.

Fast forward to the 1800s, Menelik II comes to power, a celebrated and equally despised person. He decreed that anyone who insults and persecutes potters and handicrafts people would be an insult to him. A great statement! But alas, much like today’s politics, it’s just a statement that resulted in few actions or changes.

Picture by Yohannes Mulugeta

Despite this, pottery remains alive today, mainly by women who inherited their mothers’ skills before them. In fact, the women started to organize and form associations to better practice their art and produce better quality. There’s even a general rule of conduct, stuff like not making similar items and specializing in different capacities (figurines, pots, plates…). These communities are not only a way for them to survive but for the art itself to survive.

The art, to this day, for the most part, remains inherited from parent to child (mostly if not all daughters). It’s not taught in schools and not something many consider a true vocation (when it’s actually more than that, it’s a career). It might’ve started as a coping mechanism for these women, it’s more than that. It’s a way for them to sustain and develop the art form.

Picture by Yohannes Mulugeta

Suppose you take the Insira village in Kechene, for instance. In that case, the society is supported by the government and several NGOs. It has provided a space and market for the women to sell their artwork at a fair price. Moreover, the support also involves their children. They are provided with a napping room and a daycare center.

What makes pottery different from all other traditional handicrafts (weaving, tannery, and weaving) is that it’s a radical statement against a system that oppresses people that are different from the norm. Its mere existence prevented the normalization of a caste system that would’ve had (not a long shot) devastating implications on an already fragile creative industry and problematic society. And a movement of arts that is primarily operated by women.

While the discrimination and stigma ended (well into the 20th century), potters are still facing (despite the support they get) problems in terms of gaining sustainable income. The writer of the paper concluded that the women potters should be trained and in control of what to do with their creative assets for them to survive. The same goes for other creative industries.

If we’re not in control of how we produce our art. In that case, we’re not in control of what happens to it, and most importantly, we’re not in control of the identity that art projects. For the potters (and other artisans), their history is long and painful. It must not be forgotten as it tells a crucial part of the Ethiopian story. What happens when we stop glorifying past victories and victimhood is that we can move on without forgetting the past right and wrongs; rather, we learn and evolve.

Picture by Yohannes Mulugeta

In memorium:

Mulu Yeneabat was a social worker that worked for change at the community level across Addis and Ethiopia. He led and worked in many development projects such as the Anti-Malaria Association, Gedam Sefer, and several projects on the Kechene women’s potter association.

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