The first time I saw the above illustration was in a book of the so-called Mimbres pottery of the archaeologically termed Mollogon culture of Southwest America and Mexico. This cultural period begins around 200 AD and extends to the arrival of the Spanish in 1540 AD. ‘Classical Mimbres’ pottery is found around the Arizona - New Mexico border and dates between 1000-1150 AD. The type of pottery from which the above illustration was taken was simple; coiled earthenware bowls decorated with white and black/brown slip, often depicting nature or interaction with the natural world. Many other examples have been found in burial sites, placed over the heads of the deceased, and often with a single cracked hole in the middle. There are a few theories as to the reason for this hole, the most popular of which being that they are ’kill holes’, made to allow the souls of the dead to escape.
Sadly, as is so often the case, there are so many examples of Mimbres pottery to be seen in museums in many different countries because of the extensive looting that occurred in the area, mainly during the 40 years following The Great Depression. By the end of this time, diggers and heavy machinery were used as common practice in grave looting and no single burial site was spared (Brody, J.J 1977).
As mentioned before, the bowls are made from a local earthenware clay and the monochrome illustration is created with a white clay slip and natural pigments and oxides. The bowls are coil-built and have a beautiful half-moon section. Each one features a unique illustration that we can only speculate may have borne some relation to the life of the deceased person with which it was buried. The illustrations are startlingly modern in style and full of humour and life. Their compositions within the bowls are joyful and sophisticated, and a unique take on using a concave form as a canvas.
The Mimbres illustration I have chosen to represent Studio Artificer is reportedly of an Aardvark putting on an Antelope mask, but neither of these animals are native to New Mexico and so my personal deduction is that the drawing is actually of a Coyote putting on the mask of a Pronghorn (up for dispute!). This act of trickery is classic Coyote behaviour in the indigenous mythology of southern America, and leads us into the reason for using this image that lies beyond the fact that it is such a sharp and beautiful use of monochrome, graphic illustration on a concave form.
In 1998 essayist, cultural critic and founder of Cultural Capital, MacArthur Fellow and former director of undergraduate creative writing at Harvard University (amongst other things), Lewis Hyde published ‘Trickster Makes This World – how the disruptive imagination creates culture’ in which he 'uses a group of ancient myths to argue for the disruptive intelligence that all cultures need if they are to remain lively and open to change’. In this book he delves deep into the historic, global character of Trickster – a mythical figure who is found on the boundaries between worlds and concepts and is often implemented as the means of dialogue between them in storytelling. ‘Trickster is the embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox[…]Every group has its edge, its sense of in and out, and trickster is always there, at the gates of the city, at the gates of life, making sure there is commerce.’ Examples include Hermes as thief and messenger to the Gods in Greek Mythology, Eshu’s tricks in Yoruba lore, or indeed Coyote or Raven in Native American mythology.
I feel this character aptly describes at least part of my own approach to pottery, and the intent with which this craft and design studio has been built. Studio Artificer is a space for the ones who stubbornly skirt the edges of their defined practices, avoiding the obvious and the minimum; occasionally fooling themselves more than anyone else, getting lost in their own natural inclination for curiosity in the name of physical creation; bringing messages across from other disciplines, philosophies and worlds in the work they make. Many of the makers involved or highlighted in Studio Artificer prefer to work close to the boundaries of design, craft, trade, art and sculpture. This doesn’t always make life easier or more financially stable, but it can readily offer creative opportunities full of potential and delight.
To illustrate this idea simply, below are two photographs of two functioning jugs, one of which looks like a cylinder for pouring things, the other like a sculptural abstraction of the well-fed bird that hops across it’s generous belly. The Minoan potter who made the latter in 1600 BC, zig-zagged across the boundaries of pottery, sculpture and painting, and gave the object life enough to skip between being a jug and a bird in doing so. It’s a both a tricky and tricksy thing to do – to create an object that has the ability to shape-shift. It means they then become free agents in themselves, possessing an energy that you can never really own or order, only house and care for.
I wonder now if my own tendency to be drawn to the fringes of things has something to do with being of mixed ethnic origins. My father is from Freetown, Sierra Leone and my mother is from a small market town on the border of England and Wales. I’ve never fully fitted into either context and have, in time, come to accept and embrace this duplicity. Whilst lacking a clear sense of belonging, I see now that I am a bridge, a communicator between two cultures; I can slip between two worlds and bring back messages from either. At the best of time this feels like a gift or a blessing, full of creative potential and opportunities for that disruptive intelligence that Lewis Hyde recognises so well in Trickster.
Written by Isatu Hyde, copyright 06/2020.
Images of Mimbres ware taken from Princeton University Art Museum website: https://artmuseum.princeton.edu/search/collections?periodList=%5B%22Classic+Black-on-White+%28Style+III%29%22%5D&results=1