The National Geographic Society defines culture as “the shared characteristics of a group of people, which encompasses place of birth, religion, language, cuisine, social behaviors, art, literature, and music. . . . No matter if a culture is widespread or kept within a small region, is young or old, or has changed over time or stayed the same, every culture can teach us about ourselves, others, and the global community.”
Colonization and global capitalism have prevented learning about ourselves and others by eliminating or decimating Indigenous cultures worldwide. For example, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), formed in 1670 to meet European demands for felt hats made from beaver pelts, also served to expand British domination in North America. Indigenous trappers sold their furs to HBC outposts, naively exposing themselves to diseases such as smallpox and gradually abandoning traditional lifestyles in favor of European manufactured goods and food. When the demand for beaver waned, the Indigenous and Métis peoples, reliant on HBC trade, were effectively abandoned with all-too-familiar dire consequences.
PJ Anderson is part of the legacy of that cultural loss. She inherits Métis Nation (northern Manitoba) roots through her mother—with a lineage that includes a Hudson’s Bay Company forbearer—and Afro-Caribbean ancestry through her father. She says, “We have very few stories or skills passed down, because they were forbidden. I was trained not by a grandmother or an elder, but an art school. It is an uneasy thing, to learn about one’s own cultural heritage from elective classes, taught by scholars and anthropologists not members of that group.”
She uncovered her heritage in her university’s anthropology department and, later, acquired traditional craft practices by connecting with Indigenous practitioners in North America and South Africa. Yet, as a millennial, she grew up in another kind of culture—pop culture—and has absorbed this into her work. Anderson’s experience is one of hybrid heritage and an amalgam of past and current culture.
PJ Anderson lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, where she is amassing objects for her MFA thesis. Prior to this undertaking, she was known for two bodies of work: the Weaponization series, incorporating literal and figurative weapon imagery into her vessels; and clay/woven-fiber pots. The former includes depictions of handguns that symbolize power and the gap between haves and have-nots. The series, started in 2009, was created initially to highlight the lack of safe drinking water in Canadian Indigenous reserves. Shoddy construction of water-treatment plants—a decades-long concern—has necessitated boiling to obtain potable water. In Anderson’s work, the issue was depicted in water ewers that contained inaccessible water.
Anderson credits Grace Nickel, her ceramics instructor for undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Manitoba, with opening her eyes and mind to Indigenous art practices. Although Anderson started art school as a painter, she was required to take a three-dimensional course. With ceramics at 11am and sculpture at 8am, the hour determined her choice. Her subsequent enthusiasm for clay resulted in a BFA specializing in ceramics. Anderson’s first class with Nickel was handbuilding and after observing Anderson’s coiling progress, Nickel approached her and asked, “Have you ever heard of an artist named Magdalene Odundo?” Anderson researched the Kenyan/British potter, but reflects, “I’d been in university for five years at this point. That was the first time anyone had recommended an artist of color as an example.”
Odundo studied ceramics in England and then, wanting to engage with traditional handbuilding practices in Kenya and Nigeria, returned to Africa to explore and embrace them. Anderson has followed in Odundo’s footsteps. She traveled to South Africa twice, to learn about Zulu pottery (2009) and then as artist-in-residence at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (2012) in Durban. Her motivation was to emulate the coiling and burnishing traditions of African Indigenous pottery, an aesthetic she had adopted during her early practice. Anderson laments, “The knowledge wasn’t really encouraged by professors; people didn’t know all that much about it—African techniques or Indigenous techniques—especially when I was doing my undergraduate [studies] fifteen years ago.” One could say that by arming herself with these skills, Anderson’s entire oeuvre is weaponized. She acquired a methodology that emphasizes the authority of her heritage and validation of people seen by dominant cultures as the other.
Earthenware and Weaving
The second series mentioned above, the juxtaposition of clay and fiber, was also learned from Indigenous makers. “My decision to incorporate weaving came from the disparity in the availability of knowledge about North American Indigenous pottery. There used to be a pottery tradition in Manitoba, but it died out a couple of hundred years ago. In order to explore an Indigenous perspective on art, I wanted to use basket weaving because that’s another thing that Indigenous people excel at.” Anderson applied for a grant to go to New Mexico in 2018 and spent a month and a half working with potters and weavers. She felt that the tradition of attaching baskets to pots, to keep out insects and control temperature, was there to exploit. However, a smooth integration of the two materials was essential so that “they felt they belonged together, not that I glued them.”
Anderson’s process is to form the pot and decide where to punch holes in the rim. She lets the pot dry, sands it, applies terra sigillata, and then burnishes. She explains, “Then I can fire the pot and do a secondary smoke firing. And after the secondary smoke firing, I begin to weave.” Anderson uses paper and hemp cord, choosing them because “the traditional Manitoba weaving material would be tall grasses, and they’re an endangered species here. One of the most popular materials would be sweet grass, which is a sacred medicine.” She explains that she does not want to use a sacred medicine to make pots that she is going to sell, because the pots are not themselves sacred objects. In contrast, paper and hemp are abundant and readily available resources; she has also used grape vines and corn husks.
The hybrid vessels also serve as an identity marker without having to spell it out on an exhibition wall label. She says that the coiling and weaving are a shorthand in the context of her criticism of Canadian culture. “I don’t have to say every time ‘a Black Métis woman.’ These are the kind of pots that Black Indigenous people make, so this is the perspective the work is coming from.”
Anderson combines a strong traditional orientation with awareness of the au courant. Social media, embedded in her upbringing, are coming to the forefront in her MFA portfolio. She is aiming to create five figures, ideally life size (depending on time and engineering constraints), that express her shock and anger at the falsehoods, bullying, racism, and misogyny that are perpetrated online. She calls these “keyboard wars” that pit various beliefs and affiliations against each other. To defend oneself, Anderson is constructing Backlash, a six-foot Ninja-type suit of clay armor in which to do battle on the web. The Asian reference pays homage to the beauty of Samurai suits of armor. Backlash conforms to the Japanese cuirass-style armor or dō (solid breast and back plates), which Anderson is making as individual pieces joined with metal. When not being worn, Backlash hangs on a stand, ready to be donned when entering the fray. Anderson points out that while such armor gives only an illusion of protection and anonymity; every form of defense has a vulnerable spot.
Liberté, another of Anderson’s five figures, wears a vest of tiles held together with metal loops. She was inspired by Eugène Delacroix’s painting Liberty Leading the People (1830) that commemorated the July revolution of 1830 whereby the French populace deposed their king. Coincidentally, Anderson was making this piece in November 2020, when French protesters took to the streets to oppose legislation that would make it a criminal offense to photograph police using force to quell unrest. At the time Anderson thought, “How timely! Making a sculpture of a Black woman named Liberté at the same time as this conversation was happening in France.” Liberté’s dreads, woven arm bands, and dusty jeans show a defiant young woman engaged in the ongoing war against bigotry, fundamentalism, and genocide, as well as tolerance of all of the above.
PJ Anderson hopes to teach after she graduates. Her reasons for wanting to do so serve her heritage and her craft: “I really like working with clay and I want other people to like working with clay without feeling boxed in by what we already know. We accept a lot of Asian influence into the ceramic world, but outside of that, there are incredible ceramic artists from traditional peoples, who express their ways of life, techniques, styles, and iconography. They are being lost at an astounding rate because practitioners, who are elderly, live in rural areas and don’t have access to the internet, are able to pass on their skills only if you go to them. Their children and grandchildren aren’t staying home. They’re leaving to join the digital world in the big city. We should really do our best to get as much knowledge as we can before those traditions are gone forever.” By doing so, as the National Geographic Society says, we would benefit ourselves, others, and the global community.
the author D Wood has a PhD in design studies and is an independent craft scholar whose artist profiles and exhibition reviews have appeared in an international roster of art and design publications. She is the editor of Craft is Political (Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2021).