Month: February 2011

Tatiko, the Journey of an African Pot

In January 2011, I travelled to Tatiko in central Nigeria to film the traditional potters at work.

Several years ago, I was given a large red clay pot from Africa. It came from a small village in the centre of Nigeria called Tatiko, where the women have been making pots by hand for hundreds of years. The pot was for everyday use, probably made to hold palm oil or water. It’s generous curves are decorated with fine lines over a textured surface. Shiney bands of bright red clay surround the pot’s rim, neck and shoulders. Somebody spent a long time burnishing it, giving an extra dimension of beauty to a useful container.

In January this year, 2011, I went to Nigeria to visit Tatiko, to see where my pot was made, who makes these pots and how they are made. Because I’m a potter, I wanted to see what the clay was like, what it’s like to work, and how the pots are fired. This film is the result of that visit. It tells the story of pot-making in Tatiko, a place where the traditional potters’ skills are as much in demand today as they have ever been. Tatiko supports a thriving community of more than sixty women potters. Every week they sell all they’ve made in Paiko market, a few miles up the road. People come to Paiko from all over central Nigeria to buy their pots.

The technique of pot-making in Tatiko has probably changed little down the years. The women dig the clay beside the river, about a mile from the village. The clay is a yellowish colour when dug, with a large percentage of sand, grit and stones. When the women prepare the clay, they pound it into an even consistency with tall pestles on a large flat rock, and pick out the larger stones.

Every pot starts with a lump of clay, no matter where you live. In Tatiko, the lump is put into a shallow calabash saucer, sitting on an old pot or maybe a tree-stump, so that it’s at a convenient working height. A hole is made in the centre, and then the clay is gradually scraped, pinched and pulled up into the rough shape of the pot, a slightly curved cylinder. Coils of clay are added to the top until it’s tall enough. The rim is made by smoothing the clay with a damp cloth, while the potter walks backwards around the pot. Then as the pot dries in the sun, the shape is filled out by scraping the inside with a piece of calabash. The outside is smoothed with a sliver of bamboo while the inside is supported with the other hand. At a later stage, the pot is taken off its saucer, and the rounded bottom is smoothed off.

When the pot has reached its final shape, the outside is finely textured by rolling a mealy-corn husk or a neem-tree seedpod over it. Then the potter draws a series of circles over this surface with a small twig or a stiff grass stalk. Different potters make different patterns, sometimes using a series of curves and dots. But all Tatiko pots have a signature style. When dry enough, they are decorated with burnished bands and patches of laterite, a clay rich in iron oxide which gives a glowing red colour when polished.

Finally, the pots are thoroughly dried over small fires, and carried to an area of open ground for firing. The firings take place once a week. A circle about fifteen feet square is covered with brushwood. The largest pots are placed in the centre. Smaller pots are packed around them, and more stacked on top until there is a mound of several hundred piled up. The heap of pots is covered with brushwood and dampened rice-straw. Old broken pots are used as a low wall around the bottom of the bonfire to keep everything in place. Once lit, the whole firing takes about thirty minutes, thirty minutes of intense heat. At its hottest, the fire reaches roughly eight hundred degrees centigrade.  The pots cool overnight and are taken to Paiko market by truck the next day.

As a potter, it was seriously thrilling to be present at a Tatiko firing. The energy of the women is infectious, their skill and speed in making these pots is formidable. But most of all, they are making useful everyday objects which are also works of great beauty. This film aims to capture the magic of my journey in Nigeria.