By: Taylor DeVille, Assistant Arts & Life Editor
“Chinese Folk Pottery,” now on display in the Asian Arts & Culture Center gallery, calls attention to the rapidly disappearing tradition of Chinese folk pottery in an industrialized world.
Through photographs, video and displays of 20th century folk pottery, the exhibition walks through the birth and decline of an 8,000-year-old tradition.
The exhibition is curated by Marie Woo, Susanne Stephenson and John Stephenson, three American ceramic artists who were moved by the realization that Chinese folk pottery traditions could soon be all but forgotten. The curators traveled to remote pottery villages in 23 sites in 12 provinces and collected 100 contemporary examples of Chinese folk pottery, including work made by Tibetan, Dai and Han potters.
Circling around the gallery, the viewer will find pottery with a variety of functions that give insight into the lives of Chinese villagers who lived as long ago as the Tang Dynasty, which spanned the 7th and 8th centuries. Some of the pieces include teapots (some simple, some with intricate dragon-shaped handles), food steamers, clay animal figures and whistles and pitchers, some delicately inlaid with porcelain. Other pieces include roof adornments, yak milk storage containers and porcelain headrests for the dead.
Written commentary offering historical context accompanies many of the pieces and is mostly chronological. The introductory placard distinguishes between “guanyao,” pottery officially sanctioned by the government to adorn palaces and tombs, and “minyao,” pottery used for utilitarian purposes.
The following placards detail some of the complex history between the Chinese state and its people, such as imperial control of the production of yellow, purple, red, green and blue porcelain in 1447. Potters who used porcelain of these colors were “sliced” to death, their property was confiscated and their male family members were exiled.
It wasn’t until the 17th century that trade routes between China and the west allowed travelers to transport Chinese wares back to their home countries. While Chinese traders began to export pottery, western ceramic manufacturers imitated, or stole, the designs and technologies of these Chinese wares, according to one placard.
The socialist era (1949-1976) came and brought with it the ultimate blow to folk pottery—industrialization. Potters became factory workers mass-producing work they once made by hand.
In conjunction with the history lesson, the exhibition features photos of Chinese villagers who continue to keep the legacy of folk pottery alive. The featured video shows an excerpt from Jiansheng Li’s documentary “Tao Yao (Pottery and Dragon Kiln Village).” The video depicts Tao Yao potters crafting large storage containers by hand and with a dragon kiln, an oven built as an uphill tunnel and used to heat clay into pottery, so-called because of the sounds it makes as it’s heating. The potters use almost their whole body to mold and shape the clay as they build, showing the intricate and grueling nature of folk pottery.
The Chinese Folk Pottery exhibit is on view in the Asian Arts gallery Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.