During the time of the Aksumite Empire, Ethiopia artisans created exquisite pottery using proper firing techniques and kilns. Although much of this technique and finesse has been lost, artisans continue to create both decorative and functional pottery items around the country. Ethiopian potters are traditionally women and inherit their skills from their mothers. Typical functional pottery includes desti (pots), insera (water pot), and mitad (injera pan). Many of the items are essential elements of the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony including the jebena (coffee pot), gulcha (stove), and arso (incense burner). Most of the pieces are burnished and finished with a black color although often speckled with brown and reddish hues.
The Falasha Jews of northern Ethiopia had a tradition of creating traditional primitive statuary in unglazed terra cotta. Using natural tools like smooth stones, sticks, and leaves, artisans mold the shapes and decorate the figurines with expressive eyes and lips. These small statues, now made by Christian potters near Gondor, depict the life of people and animals. Traditionally Ethiopian Jewish potters created functional items like jugs, pots, and cups but the creative artisans also developed sculptures and figurines to depict daily life, Jewish symbolism, and religious practices. The majority of Falasha left Ethiopia in the late 1980s to live in Israel.
In the south and southwest of Ethiopia, there is a wide variety of pottery styles. Many potters use molds to make medium to large sized pieces like water pots and cooking pans. Molds are made from baskets, leather, or even large holes dug in the ground. The molds often form the bottom half of the large pieces while the potters then build the top halves by hand.Small and simpler pieces are made by hand and do not need molds. Once the pieces have been shaped and dried, potters will often decorate the pots with their fingers or pieces of straw. Decoration usually includes straight lines in v-shapes or horizontal series or a ring of small bumps around the pot. Pottery is tested/sealed by fired twice, once by the potter and then once by the buyer at his home. Often special meals are prepared in new pots to celebrate the purchase. Pottery is used to create utensils, cookery, and containers necessary for daily life. One of the largest pieces made in Ethiopia is the gani (brewing pot) which is used to prepare local beer.
Pottery Making Techniques
Traditional Ethiopian pottery is made from three types of clay collected by hand. The clay is pulverized into a powder and mixed with water to create a flexible paste. Most potters do not use a potter's wheel but rather a flat, round plate which supports the piece of pottery and also indicates size and shape of the piece. In recent years, some potters have received help from development programs which provide them with pottery wheels and training on modern pottery making techniques. Those working without a wheel build pots using either the spiral coiling technique or a traditional method of moving around the pots.
Once the basic shape is created, the artisans dry the unfired form in the sun. Many potters then burnish their pottery to make the exterior shiny. Burnishing is typically very time consuming and involves rubbing dried (but unfired) pottery with a smooth river stone, piece of bamboo, or leather rag to give the piece a smooth and shiny surface texture. Burnishing was developed before glazes existed to make pottery more waterproof. After burnishing, the artisans fire the pottery in a rudimentary kiln, often only a hole in the ground, where the objects are covered and fired with dry cow dung and hay. Usually potters in the same village will share a firing area that is used only once a week.
Most Ethiopian pottery is either natural clay colored or black. The black color is created by coating the object in oil and then firing it in the kiln. After, the objects are left to cool under a mound of dried eucalyptus leaves giving them a black patina. Although most pottery is unglazed, some potters in the South will waterproof pots by heating them and then pouring cold milk into the pot or using the residue of local beer or coffee to seal it. Alternatively, a small group of potters use a simple resin glaze made from the leaves of the ketketa bush or from the sap of the euphorbia. Occasionally, artisans will paint pottery after it has been fired to add further decoration. Recent efforts have been made to improve Ethiopian pottery and a few cooperatives located near Addis Ababa have successfully worked with women to create high quality pottery products.
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