The Concept of Beauty in Urhobo Pottery

Dr Abamwa Oghenekevwe Elizabeth Ceramics Art + Perception 109 2018 Art + Perception Home

The concept of beauty derives from the way man has been interpreting the world as it existed since the dawn of human society. In the Western world view, artwork’s beauty depends on the use of elements and principles of design. But, for Africans, the beauty of an artwork is not considered by the form, but the purpose the artwork is made to serve. For this, African artworks were considered by early Western scholars as timid and fetish. This study looks at the perception of beauty that is hidden in the manipulation of the traditional pots produced by Urhobo potters of Delta State in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. The methods applied for the study was by survey and the description of the concept of beauty as it relates to Urhobo traditional pots. The findings were used to arrive at the conclusion which stated that the elements the Western world classified as the factors that connote beauty in an artworks production are not the elements considered for beauty in the pottery production among the Urhobo.

The word pottery is a general name for all fired clay wares. These wares range from valuable decorative wares to household utensils and shrine pots. Pottery is, therefore, directly related to any process that uses silica and heat treatment to make permanent objects of usefulness from earthy materials. The art of pot making in Nigeria received a great stimulus for development as a venture when the Abuja pottery centre was established by the government based on the advice of Michael Cardew, who conducted several research projects on pottery in Nigeria (Agberia, 2005:8). Agberia also confirms that the first trainees of Michael Cardew, in the now Ladi Kwali Pottery Centre, Abuja, were taken from the immediate environment among which is Kwali village. The distribution of pot making tradition is however not limited to the northern part of Nigeria, but is spread all over the land mass of Nigeria, as is evident today. As the spread and the practice of this art continued, pots were made according to specifications as the need arose. These specifications were determined by the philosophies, values, norms, beliefs and aesthetic (beauty) value of the consumers and the potters. Nevertheless, it is the purpose of usage that mostly determines the manipulation of the motifs that enhance the beauty of the pots.

According to Carola (2011), the outward appearance of African artworks may look primitive, but the best pieces of African art are perfect in their uncomplicated form and pattern. She added by saying that the goal of the African style was not to emulate intricacy that might be found in Asian or Arabic art. Carola (2011) explains further that the elements of the earth such as organic pigments, fluids, and the elemental matter of life is used by Africans to aesthetically transform their art objects.

The factors that connote beauty in an artwork's production [in the west] are not the elements considered for beauty
in pottery production among the Urhobo.

Urhobo People and Beliefs
The people of Urhobo, as noted by Nabofa (2004:37), in the pre-colonial times, were part of a fragmented society of smaller communities. These communities were led by their elders, but virtually, all their inhabitants were regarded as equals; there were no servants and no masters. Individuals respected their parents and elders on the grounds of age. The spiritual world was believed to follow the same arrangement, as individuals of equal status, inhabited the physical world. Nabofa (2004:37) continued by saying that the Urhobo believed that individual spirits of equal status occupied the spiritual world. At the same time, they claim that there is a Supreme Being that all the spirits are responsible to and this Supreme Being is called Oghene, who governs and controls both spheres of existence, and it is this Being that the Urhobo people worship.

Nabofa (2004:37) also added that the Urhobo people used to live together as an entity but, expansionist drives and struggles over territorial boundaries led to conflicts. This prompted the people to set up shrines for war charms, for the preparation of herbs and other medicines’ that were also prepared to enhance fertility in plants and animals. These shrines gradually became places of regular worship. In supporting Nabofa’s view, Abamwa (2003:57), reports that there are different kinds of shrines instituted by the Urhobo people, and among them is Orise.

The Urhobo Pottery and Concept of Beauty
The pottery tradition is not predominant in all the parts of Urhobo land. However, the communities that are known for this art practice, are largely Ughevwughe, Otor- Edo, Arhagba, Egini, Otutwama, Ewu-Ame and Esaba. The writings of Leith-Rose (1970) and Oyelola (1981) on Urhobo pottery adopt this view. The Urhobo potters specialized in the production of the following pots: storage, serving, cooking, initiation, and sacrificial paraphernalia pots. The decorative motifs found on these pots are like the methods enumerated and discussed by Peter (1988:16). Some of these decorative styles include sgraffitto, piercing, stamping, screening, and painting. Conclusively, the Urhobo consider these pots aesthetically pleasing, although, not much seems to have been known about the elements that make these pots aesthetically pleasing to the Urhobo. The objective of this study was to discuss the concept of beauty as it impacted on pots and to bring into the limelight what constitutes beauty in pot production and usage to the Urhobo. In this vein, survey and descriptive methods were used so as to help elicit the connotation of beauty as it impacted on pots by the people of Urhobo. For example, when babies are birthed, and their umbilical cords are being treated locally the main equipment used for treatment is a broken shard from a pot. The reason is that it is believed that when a broken shard from pot is used then it helps the umbilical cords to heal on time. It could be any shape of shard but, in as much as it able to perform its task, the shard is accepted as beautiful.

Potter: Edirin Ishari
Title: Oni Oche

This pot is called Oni Oche in general Urhobo language. The Oni Oche pot is produced with a big oval shaped belly having a curve that enables it to sit without a support. Usually, the Oni Oche pot has a narrow neck that helps to project the roundness of its belly that gradually slopes down the base. At the mouth of the pot, it is built wider to enable liquid to be poured in and out of the pot easily. The beauty that is considered here is that the pot can serve its purpose for which that it is made.

Potter: Ibelief Iboyi
Title: Oche r’ Erhan

This pot has the normal shape of Oche but built only half way to the top. It is made to serve the purpose of a planter for the popular Scent Leaf (Urhe r’erhan) whose botanical name is Ocimum gratissimum and is of great spiritual value to the Urhobo people. The plant is used as a cleanser and to avert any negative utterances such as curses, enchantments and divinations on persons. The leaves of the plant are plucked and used for cleansing (oma ephwuro) the body of the person who was a victim to drive away the evil spirit(s) and also to cancel evil utterances. There is a strong belief that it is only when the plant is transferred from its abode to another place in this pot (Oche r’Erhan) that its power and ability will be intact.

Potter: Isiter Umukoro
Title: Oche r’ Ekpofia

This pot has the Oche shape too and the motifs on these pots help to imbue the conviction that whenever any poisonous crawling creatures like centipedes, scorpions, or snakes bite a person, the poisonous substance ejected is neutralized from the body of the victim if these pots are used to prepare the concoction for the treatment. This is according to my informants among who are: Imonijevwe John and Mereje Lawrence.

Potter: Isiter Umukoro
Title: Omo-Oche

There is another type of Oche that has a similar shape but is smaller in size called Omo-Oche (Small Pot) in many parts of Urhobo. The pot is used for sacrificial paraphernalia for the purpose of being able to see into the spiritual realm to find out why certain repetitions of ugly occurrences are happening to them. Sacrifices (Izobo) are prepared and packed into this same pot to appease the deity or avert the happening. Beneath the pot’s mouth there are seven openings through which white pieces of cloth are threaded. After they have been soaked with oil they are lit to invoke the spirit of mercy (Arhodovwe) at three junction road to oversee and control of the life the victim henceforth.

Potter: Oghenetega Esharinena
Title: Umukokogor pot

Omokokogor also falls in the Oche pot family but is small when compared to the Oche. The finishing of the Omokokogor pot has protrusions from all parts of its body. The pot is used to store the ash of a dangerous creature that is killed and burnt for the treatment of people that such creatures may have injured. The pot is hung in a position where the custodian normally kindles fire in his or her shrine, so the content can be kept dry and ready for whenever it is needed for use. The protrusions that appear on the body of this pot, in combination with the content, are believed by the Urhobo people to be responsible for attracting the spirit of warfare (Egbophevwen) and mercy (Arhodovwe) to fight and overcome the evil spirits. Therefore, to the Urhobo people, without the protrusions there is no Omokokogho.

Potter: Edirin Osiebe
Title: Evwere rho-tete

The Evwere tete is a pot mainly for serving soup (Evwere tete rha je emu phiyo) and it is also made in different sizes and styles. For example, some of the mouths are concave while others are convex, so the choice of usage depends on the size of the content the users want to put in it. This pot is frequently used by traditional religion practitioners for Izobo (sacrifices). According to John Oniovosa, Lawrence Mereji and Isither Umukoro, this pot has a force that pulls rewarding spirits to accept the sacrifice and release answers as to the reasons why the sacrifice was offered. He added by saying that this evwere r’ otete is commonly found within three junctions having sacrificial content. The sacrificial paraphernalia and its contents is usually cooked food and hardly ever is the contents raw food.

Potter: Omotejehwo Usievwo
Title: Evwere rhode

This is another type of pot that is used for cooking soup (Evwere rhode re awo djere emu). Its contents can last for few days depending on the number of people the soup is prepared for. In religious practices, the Evwere rhode re awo djere emu is used as a container for cooking a concoction for self-defense in the time of war, and they are popularly referred to in Urhobo central language as Ekpofia. The decoration varies from one motif to another. The pot is built having a wide open mouth to enable the content to be seen even when boiling. At the boiling stage different contentions and enchantments are made to aid the activeness of the contents. The motifs for decorations are sgraffito lines running from the center of the base of the pot to the end sides of the base. The rim at the ends of the mouth are modeled in a way that it has a flat flap ending rim that stretches outwardly and helps with the convenient carrying of the pot.

Potter: Onivosa Itetebe
Title: Omotutu

Omotutu is another type of Evwere pot but it has a lid and is almost the same shape as the Evwere rho tete pot. For this Omotutu pot, instead of sgraffitto lines scratched on the inside of the pot they are running on the outer part of it. The pot has the ability to preserve soup for about two days and when soup is served a small pit is dug in the ground under a big tree, for good shade spread, and the Omotutu pot is kept and covered in the pit to stop the soup from spoiling.

... when babies are birthed, and their umbilical cords are being treated locally the main equipment used for treatment is a broken shard from a pot ... in as much as it able to perform its task the shard is accepted as beautiful.

The study discusses the uniqueness of the concept of beauty and pot making among the Urhobo potters. The findings from the study show the purpose of an art piece determines the form and applied motifs. It was noted that the beauty of art pieces cannot be separated from the purpose, because they are genuinely interwoven. Also, in the Urhobo people’s beliefs, the ability for an artwork to be able to serve the purpose for which it is made connotes the beauty of that art piece. In addition, the form of any art piece does not matter to the Urhobo people provided the art can perform its duty. The symbolic decorations found on the pots are not merely for decorative purposes but to enable the purpose of production to be realized in the hearts of the users. The Urhobo people express their way of life through these issues: beliefs, norms, values etcetera and as a result, their pottery seems to value purpose (utility) more than form. However, the study was able to unveil hidden beauty in the traditional pots of the Urhobo people.


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by Dr Abamwa Oghenekevwe Elizabeth

Dr. Abamwa, Oghenekevwe Elizabeth is a lecturer in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts of the Delta State University, Abraka-Nigeria. She has participated in many group exhibitions.
Image credits: Thomas Bjornskau.