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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Art and Ritual in MAM's 'Face Jugs'

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Visiting the Decorative Arts Gallery usually entails a feeling of discovery, partly prompted by its somewhat hidden location on the lower floor of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Currently, it exudes more than the usual sense of mystery with the compact exhibition “Face Jugs: Art and Ritual in 19th-Century South Carolina” (through Aug. 5).

It takes a moment to adjust to the dim atmosphere inside the gallery. Pools of light fall on the glazed surfaces of jugs decorated with likenesses of strange faces. Their features are bold: bulging eyes and grimacing mouths, some even filled with sharp, pointed teeth.

The exhibition focuses on a type of pottery created by African Americans living under dehumanizing conditions as slaves in the Edgefield District of South Carolina. Making objects for one's personal use was an unusual and often prohibited act. An informative brochure functions as a gallery guide, describing how these vessels may have been misunderstood by white outsiders as water jugs (though they are really far too small for this purely practical use). A more likely scenario is that these were made, in part, as secretive, spiritual objects. According to the exhibition wall text, "A recent discovery further suggests that face jugs were used for conjuring or some other ritual practice."

This is a crucial point, and it is more fully detailed in the gallery brochure. Wall text in the exhibition space is sparse, which is great for aesthetic purposes but demands extra attention on the part of the viewer in order to understand the history of these pieces. It is suggested that the traditions of face jugs may connect to rituals of African Kongo societies, and these vessels could have a function as nkisi, or spirit, containers. One material associated with ritual purposes is kaolin, a white clay. It is used in these pieces to create the luminous eyes and teeth.

Most of the face jugs are small in size and have a ring handle at the back. The faces on the front are similar in placement, but the details make each distinct. The overall effect of the visages is otherworldly; some grimace, some seem almost to chortle. One speaks to us in face and words, with the name Joe Banford inscribed on the top with serif letters. Moving through the intimate gallery space, the final display is a large glass case that brings numerous examples together, illuminating the common traits and variations of facial details and jug shapes.

Rounding out the exhibition is one contemporary piece, a collaborative work produced by a team under the auspices of MSOE's Rapid Prototyping Center. The nickel-plated copy of a jug appears transformed into a futuristic alien thing, appropriate perhaps in its new function as an artistic time capsule, split open and revealing electronic components inside. If spiritual activism is part of the object, is this what animates our souls today—not charged faces of mystery and evocation, but the digital realms under the aegis of circuit boards and batteries?
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