- The Washington Times - Friday, December 16, 2005

CHICAGO — There’s a special exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, but don’t look for the bright hues of the French impressionism for which the museum is famous; the colors of these works are the muted earth tones of African mud and clay.

The brightest splashes of color in “For Hearth and Altar: African Ceramics From the Keith Achepohl Collection” come from the huge accompanying photographs on the walls, which show African potters and the techniques they use to create earthenware.

The understated exhibition is a quietly fascinating study of shapes and subtleties.

“Look at these forms,” Kathleen Bickford Berzock, the show’s curator, says while walking through the gallery. “We’ll never know exactly what some of these objects were used for, but their forms are fascinating — and fun, too.”

The exhibition consists of 125 pieces from the personal collection of Mr. Achepohl, a printmaker and professor emeritus at the University of Iowa who plans to donate many of them to the Art Institute.

In an interview with Miss Berzock, Mr. Achepohl explained that he became interested in pottery when he looked at pictures of classic Greek vases and dishes in his high school Latin class in Elmhurst.

But the Greek pieces were thrown on potters’ wheels, glazed and decorated by professional artists — very different from the rough-textured African work Mr. Achepohl prizes today. Still, it was that no-frills quality that attracted him when he encountered his first African pottery while bicycling through southern Egypt in 1977.

A few years later, Mr. Achepohl became a serious collector of such ware, largely in reaction to the 1980s art market, which he called “corporate interior decorating, with astronomical prices being given to work that really didn’t merit them.”

African pots, he found, were relatively cheap, idiosyncratically beautiful, and usually the work of anonymous artisans — something he found attractive.

“I like it because I knew I was always going to be looking at these things for what they were as objects, not for ‘who did it,’ because all the rest of the art world is about ‘who did it,’” he told Miss Berzock. She wrote the show’s catalog and took many of the photographs accompanying the ceramic works.

The pieces on display present a fascinating cross section of African cultures, from the geometrical Taureg designs of Morocco in the northwest to the equally abstract creations of the Zulu potters in South Africa. In between are numerous strange anthropomorphic and animal forms from the Niger and Congo basins, the Sudan and East Africa.

The photographs by Miss Berzock and others bring an added dimension to the exhibition and the catalog by showing the potters at their work. Few of the pots and jars on display, and none of the mysterious ceremonial objects, were thrown on the wheel. Some were created by the most basic “pinch pot” technique, while others were built up through the almost equally ancient coil method, in which potters stack ropes of clay to create forms.

But as the photographs show, more sophisticated techniques also were at work. In arid regions where water is at a premium, for example, the potters form templates by hollowing out palm tree stumps and then tamp only slightly damp clay into the resulting concave mold with mallets — sometimes achieving amazingly thin walls. And in some cultures, fresh clay is molded over the bottom of older earthenware so the old pot “gives birth” to the new one.

That analogy extends into the material of the pots, too. Because closed kilns are rare in Africa and the heat of open fires is variable, pottery can crack from uneven expansion. To avoid that, the potters take old pots, crush them into powder, and add that powder to the new clay as a “temper.”

Some of the items in Mr. Achepohl’s collection are 500 or 600 years old, but most are from the early to middle 20th century — the period just before the importation of cheap plastic goods put the potters’ work in jeopardy.

Despite their relatively recent origin, however, most of the works have a timeless quality. Stylized human forms, as basic as stick figures, decorate a large and subtly mottled storage bowl from Burkina Faso. In another piece, a snake and a lizard pursue each other eternally around a water container from the same general area.

Many of the shapes are of unknown purpose, but one of the oddest is practical. A Moroccan milk jug looks awkward at first with its conical neck growing from a football-shaped body. And then the handle on the neck gives away the secret — the jug doubles as a butter churn.

“For Hearth and Altar” runs through Feb. 20 and will not travel.

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