The audio file for this article was produced by the Ceramic Arts Network staff and not read by the author.

1 Foreground: Syd Carpenter’s Mother Pin Awash, 28 in. (71 cm) in length, clay, watercolor, 2016. Installation view of “Clay Holds Water, Water Holds Memory,” at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“Clay Holds Water, Water Holds Memory” is more than an exhibition, it is a reclamation of space and voice that honors the wisdom and work of Black women and non-binary persons as mentors and champions of emergent artists who are arriving in part due to the hard-earned work of those who laid the foundation before them. At another level, Clay Holds Water was a short-lived concurrent exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of the National Council for the Education of the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) from March 15–18, 2023. Half a dozen women came together to tirelessly and selflessly install the work with meticulous care for the three-day exhibition. The result of their efforts was a seamless, professional standard, contemporary exhibition that showcased the work of nineteen artists. NCECA does not cover the costs of shipping for its concurrent exhibitions. The vision of the curator, Adero Willard, was to compensate all participating artists for shipping, which can be a barrier for participation. 

The scope of the artist roster is as diverse and inclusive as possible from the African diaspora. The exhibition gives voice to individuals (including non-binary and LGBTQ2+ artists) and speaks to the varied African American experience, Afro-Caribbean and mixed-race expressions. These artists represent all corners of the US, the Caribbean, and as far away as West Africa. 

Transformative Inclusion 

Willard is a thinker, creator, educator, and curator. In speaking with Willard, I was reminded of Theaster Gates’ questions: “Are you the person who makes the thing, or are you the person who makes the thing who makes the thing?” Willard is both. With only three months to pull together the exhibition, Willard mounted a successful fundraising campaign through Pots on Wheels (POW), a small, many-faceted, New England–based, non-profit collective and community outreach program. POW raised $25,000, which covered costs and meant no artist was out of pocket to participate, including work shipped from Nigeria by Anne Adams. Diversity in every aspect imaginable was a guiding principle. POW describes a key aspect of Clay Holds Water as “amending underrepresented voices who have been here the whole time, while creating space for new voices. . .”1 Willard’s research, thinking, and curatorial focus stems from her lifetime of inspiration through the work of Octavia Butler, bell hooks, Zora Neale Hurston, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Adrian Piper, and others. The printed catalog opens with a quote by Anne Adams, from Martyr, 2021, and is worthy of citing: “I had said from the beginning of my work in ceramics that I wanted to be part of a movement where there is a representation of ceramics created by Africans in free and loved spaces, not displayed as stolen artifacts in museums around the world, but as a symbol of power, acceptance, and inclusion of ourselves and our history.” 

2 Adero Willard’s Mino Ghigua Prunk, clay, Egyptian paste, luster, wire, decal, 2022–2023. 3 Shea Burke’s Untitled (Kurumba Inspired), 20 in. (51 cm) in height, salt-fired stoneware, 2023.

What I witnessed in Cincinnati was transformative on many levels. Willard notes in her curatorial statement that “Representation is integral to change: Who is speaking? Who is deciding? Who is creating? Who is teaching? Who is listening? Who do we see? How do we care?” Willard worked with Kaabo Clay Collective, a collective that connects African diasporic ceramic artists worldwide, providing a conduit to many of the artists. Exhibiting artists include Anne Adams, April Adewole, Olúbúnmi Atéré, Osa Atoe, Shea Burke, Syd Carpenter, Chotsani Elaine Dean, Angela Drakeford, Isissa Komada-John, Nickeyia Johnson, Chelsea McMaster, Sana Musasama, Lola Ayisha Ogbara, Yinka Orafidiya, Joey Quiñones, Ashlyn Pope, Victoria Walton, and Adero Willard. All of the artists are worthy of discussion, however, I have chosen to focus on the work of half a dozen artists whose works quite literally sucker-punched me in the gut with feeling, emotion, artistic merit, and aesthetics. 

Representation, Expression, and Strength 

The first works at the front of the gallery drew me in immediately. I Died Twice and Girl Soldier by veteran artist/activist Sana Musasana are two works created in a similar style—sculptural, yet “nearly 2D”—each work is formed in a cookie-cutter-style human figure, which upon close examination it is possible to distinguish girl from woman through the sparest shift in outline of the female figure. These works were created with ceramics and mixed media, the bodies appear to be filled with glass and shiny, crushed, multicolored found objects. Musasana, based in New York, has dedicated much of her life to advocacy—working, traveling, sharing, creating, and instigating empowerment of women in non-Western lands, most recently Cambodia, Peru, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Musasana aims to tell universal hard truths through her work. These two pieces, while literally referencing the pele-mele on the soul as experienced through the suffering of having been forced into servitude, to take up arms as young girls in Cambodia, speak universally to the stories and legacies of subjugated and exploited women worldwide. 

4 Foreground: Victoria Walton’s Finding A Way Forward, 13 in. (33 cm) in height, glazed stoneware, resin, 2022. 5 Chelsea McMaster’s Keeper Water Jar, 18 in. (46 cm) in height, earthenware, terra sigillata, patina, 2023.

I was drawn next to the video screen installed in the gallery that weaves together the process, feeling, and visual response to the title/theme of the show as created by six of the exhibiting artists: Osa Atoe, April Adewole, Shea Burke, Chelsea McMaster, Yinka Orafidiya, as well as Lydia C. Thompson, who had to withdraw from the exhibition at the last moment. The video is deftly edited by Angela U. Drakeford. The close-up of hands, and in particular Black hands, on, in, and around clay is interspersed with the moving images of underwater footage of Osa Atoe, interacting with her pottery at the bottom of what appears to be a seabed. The piece worked with the flow of the exhibition to enhance the feeling of submersion and the immediacy of clay’s relationship to water. This, as I would offer up, underscored through metaphor the “submersion” historical subjugation of representation of Black artists, and in particular, the works of Black women and non-binary artists as represented in the lower, darkened gallery, which unto itself is the physical manifestation of submersion. 

Another veteran artist, one who also has earned the mantle of not only teacher but also wise woman mentor is Syd Carpenter. Carpenter’s work for this exhibition is from her Mother Pins Awash series where the larger-than-life clothespin symbolizes her mother, Ernestine Carpenter. The composite abstract still-life is an homage to the artist’s mother—a single mother who worked, raised a family, and earned a graduate degree in literature. Notably, Ernestine stands pinned in an infinity-like band of clay that has several chains bound to one side, with what appears to be a bottle formed of woven clay strips into its mold—another symbol of the duality inherent in the single mother—fragility and structural strength. In Carpenter’s words, “This mundane domestic form of the clothespin is evocative of a graceful statuesque female form. It is essential and refined, like Ernestine.” 

Generations of Experiences 

Shea Burke and Chelsea McMaster are two of the emergent generation of artists in the exhibition whose work spoke to me. Both allow the earthiness of red clay to reveal itself in large hand-coiled vessels. Burke brings their lived experience as a non-binary, queer individual to their creative process, which honors the traditional coil building of West African pots. Burke’s large earthenware, salt-fired vessels are purposefully untitled. They use coiling, “as a synonym to winding and spiraling, exists in opposition to straightness. . . It is a forgiving and flexible process with room for ambiguity. It is symbolically queer.” Moreover, the coils are fashioned with pattern and rhythm, “becoming a tally of moments passing.”2 

One of McMaster’s works that haunts me is Keeper Water Jar. This earthenware vessel somehow conveys centuries of history, depicting generations of women moving through time and space within the reprehensible constraints of slavery on the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Here, a series of figurative forms seamlessly evolve out of the vessel in a triad of spirals, infant to elder, elder to infant, tethered by braids in a tenuous relationship. The pattern, rhythm, and line coupled with the figurative are very successful. 

6 Foreground: Lola Ayisha Ogbara’s Untitled (from the Black Pot Calls the Kettle series), 111/4 in. (29 cm), stoneware with glaze, 2022. Installation view of Clay Holds Water, Water Hold Memory. Photos: Heidi McKenzie.

The last work that I found mesmerizing was a work by curator Adero Willard. Willard carefully crafts the titles of her works, using words to unfurl, balance, and yet destabilize. She aims to use language to speak about the body moving into form and to speak about the complexity of form in its relationship to identity.” Mino Ghingua Prunck, to me, stands defiantly as a strong example of post-colonial creation. Willard describes the work poetically as a “hundred wings of feathers of the collective voices . . . she will fly.”3 The work is global in its references, and autobiographical in its roots—literally merging the Cherokee word gingua, strong female leader, with the West African word from Benin for an all-female military battalion, Mino

As reclamation, Clay Holds Water intends a future: future exhibitions, future installations, future opportunities for collectors to purchase the works of Black female and non-binary artists, future opportunities for artists to write creatively about their lived experience in relationship to their artistic practices, moreover, future possibilities for healing and empowerment. Looking forward to what the future holds. 

the author Heidi McKenzie is an artist, author, and curator living in Toronto, Canada. Learn more at www.heidimckenzie.ca

1 http://potsonwheels.org 
2 website, [https://www.dkgallery.com/artists/65-shea-burke/
3 Zoom interview with curator, December 15, 2023.