Journal of History of Design and Curatorial Studies
Parsons School of Design
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

History of Design and Curatorial Studies
Parsons School of Design
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Reviews & Interviews 

Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Sue Waiter

FIG. 1 David Drake, Storage Jar, 1859. Alkaline-glazed stoneware, Anonymous Gift of Funds, 2023.2.1. National Gallery of Art.

In the debate “is it art or is it craft”, a collection of utilitarian pottery originating from the nineteenth century American South would traditionally fit in the craft camp, and as such is likely to be on exhibit in a regional, craft, or even a natural history museum. However, this collection of everyday objects is the focus of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent exhibition, Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina, and is far from mundane. Hear Me Now, co-organized with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, comprises nearly sixty pieces of pottery produced in the ceramic factories of Old Edgefield, South Carolina. The center of an alkaline-glazed stoneware industry, South Carolina supported the American South’s expanding population and plantation-based agricultural economy in the decades before the Civil War. The makers of this unique and sought-after stoneware included hundreds of skilled and innovative enslaved craftsmen, who “within the brutal barbarity of slavery, and despite harsh conditions and back-breaking labor…managed to create objects that were not only utilitarian necessities… but also objects of superior craftsmanship, notable artistry and even transcendent beauty.”1 The Met considers Hear Me Now a landmark exhibition, setting objects of industrial slavery within the context of the stories being told in the American Wing. Max Hollein, the Marian Kellen French Director of The Met, explains it is the “first exhibition from The Met’s American Wing to highlight the work of enslaved makers, [marking] a pivotal moment in the museum’s efforts to tell a more inclusive and expansive story of artistic expression, both past and present.”2

The exhibition opens with a display of twelve large ceramic works by the best-known of Edgefield’s enslaved craftsmen, the potter and poet who signed his work “Dave the Potter,” later recorded as David Drake. Contributing curators Michael Bramwell and Ethan Lasser note in the exhibition catalog that Drake turned stoneware jugs and jars alongside other enslaved potters in the decades before and during the Civil War. His works, however, were distinguished by their fine craftsmanship and often unusually large scale. Additionally, he uniquely inscribed his signature, date, and/or short verses of poetry on nearly 50 works (Fig. 1). Drake’s facility with written language and penmanship are notable considering South Carolina’s strict laws against the literacy of slaves that began in 1740. The earliest of Drake’s signed works included in the exhibition is dated 1834, the year in which South Carolina enacted an especially punitive anti-literacy law designed to prevent slaves from writing, thereby making this work an extraordinary act of courage and defiance by Drake. “By weaving together poetry and pottery, Dave carved out a space of autonomy within the context of enslavement, bearing witness to its horrors while transforming objects of oppression into sites of abolitionist struggle.”3 

The second section of the exhibition features more than forty ceramic objects – water coolers, bottles, pitchers, and jugs – produced in and around Old Edgefield in the nineteenth century by enslaved potters for commercial use. These objects exemplify the unique qualities of Old Edgefield ceramics that comes from the region’s naturally occurring kaolin clay and use of alkaline glazes. Many of these pieces feature decorative details of floral patterns and swirls that enhance the form of the vessel and elevate it beyond primarily utilitarian value. Other ceramic objects act as canvases for elaborate and detailed portraits, including a circa 1840 water cooler featuring a man and woman in formal dress, perhaps at a wedding, that is so large it becomes non-functional (Fig. 2).

Also displayed in this section of the exhibition are nineteen face jugs crafted by unrecorded Old Edgefield potters. They are rare examples of objects made by slaves for their own communities and stand in stark contrast to the functional stoneware produced for commercial use (Fig. 3). The similarity of the form of the face jugs to traditional Power Figure, circa 1850, by Vili (Kongo) and the use of kaolin clay decoration directly link West African artistic practices with enslaved potters of Old Edgefield.4   

The final section of the exhibition offers “… dialogue with contemporary artistic responses to the story of Old Edgefield,” as promised by the description of the exhibition and comprises seven works by African American artists working around the United States today. Each contemporary piece reflects on the works of enslaved potters of Old Edgefield in some way – through technique, materials, form, subject, or scale. A particularly monumental white sculpture entitled Large Jug (2021-22) by artist Simone Leigh may be seen to encompass the range of the exhibition’s references in one vessel (Fig. 4). It expands upon the scale of Drake’s ceramic jars, and its form is reminiscent of the Old Edgefield face jugs. Leigh’s use of cowrie shells for abstract facial features and bright white glaze are both direct references to African culture and religious ritual. The work that best demonstrates a continuity of the Old Edgefield story from past through the present day is Adebunmi Gbadebo’s sculpture K.S. (Fig. 5). Using clay collected from the True Blue Cemetery in South Carolina and locks of human hair, Gbadebo creates a material connection to her ancestry, incorporating into the sculpture the DNA of her ancestors who were buried in the Old Edgefield region.5     

Overall, the impression of the exhibition is that of three distinct ideas rather than a cohesive story of Old Edgefield’s significance in the history of American ceramics, enslavement, and industry. The exhibition’s focus on David Drake’s works highlights the disparity of the position or status of one enslaved potter and the anonymous artists whose works share common forms, materials, and technique and display comparable skill and artistry. Is it possible that out of the hundreds of enslaved makers there was another “Dave the Potter” who held similar distinction, and if not, why?

Fig. 2 _____(Potter once known), likely enslaved at Phoenix Stone Ware Factory (about 1840), and Thomas M. Chandler Jr., watercooler, about 1840.
Alkaline-glazed stoneware with iron and kaolin slip. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase in honor of Audrey Shilt, president of the Members Guild, 1996–1997, with funds from the Decorative Arts Acquisition Endowment and Decorative Arts Acquisition Trust (1996.132). Photo by Michael McKelvey/courtesy of High Museum of Art.

Fig. 4 Simone Leigh, Jug, 2022. Stoneware. 62 1/2 × 40 3/4 × 45 3/4 inches (158 × 103.5 × 116.2 cm). Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston. Acquired through the generosity of Susana and Clark Bernard, Adelle Chang and Eddie Yoon, the Miller-Coblentz Family, Grace Colby, Fotene Demoulas and Tom Coté, Mathieu O. Gaulin, Jessica Knez and Nicolas Dulac, Christine and John Maraganore, and the Acquisitions Circle. Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. © Simone Leigh

Sue Waiter is a student in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies MA program offered jointly by the Parsons School of Design and Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. Her experience as a costume designer and life-long textile crafter led her to focus her research and writing in costume and textiles history. Sue holds an MBA from the University of Chicago and Masters and Bachelors degrees in Education.


  1. Pamela Reynolds, “Pottery Exhibit at the MFA Spins A Tale of Artistry despite the Odds,” WBUR News (WBUR, March 1, 2023),
  2.  “Landmark Exhibition of Ceramic Objects from Old Edgefield District of South Carolina Opens September 9 at the Met,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 8, 2022,
  3. Michael J. Bramwell and Ethan W. Lasser, “Incidents in the Life of an Enslaved Abolitionist Potter Written by Others,” Adrienne Spinozzi, Hear Me Now, The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2022), 50-75. 
  4. “Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina Virtual Opening | Met Exhibitions,” YouTube (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, September 22, 2022),
  5. Ibid, “Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina Virtual Opening | Met Exhibitions.”