A face jug is a jug pottery that depicts a face. There are examples in the pottery of ancient Greece, and that of Pre-Columbian America. Early European examples date from the 13th century, and the German stoneware Bartmann jug was a popular later medieval and Renaissance form. Later, the British Toby Jug was a popular form, that became mass-produced. Especially in America, a number of modern craft potters make pieces, mostly continuing the 19th-century African-American slave folk art tradition.
During the 13th century, craftsmen outside of London became more decorative in their style, creating more anthropomorphic vessels that would characterize medieval face jugs. In the 1600s full-body vessels supposedly modeled after Edward Vernon, also known as Admiral Vernon. These pieces came to be known as British Toby Jugs.
African Nkisi dolls, native to the Congo, were considered both object and human. These dolls were made with many different materials including clay. They came to America transported through slave trade, and are found more commonly in Latin American regions. The vessels are full figured pieces characterized by the same exaggerated human features often seen on African-American face jugs. Many rituals associated with Nkisi dolls are used either to aid or to harm a person or other living creature that the dolls play a stand-in role for, or as an extension of a spiritual leader, or as a being that stores spiritual energy.
Some of the best-known vessels come from North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, made by African-American slaves in the mid-1800s. Though the jugs' exact purposes are unknown, many scholars believe they have either practical or spiritual value. Other names associated with African-American face jugs are grotesque jars, monkey jars, or face jars. Modern interpretations started appearing in the same regions during the 1940s.
Face jugs were fully functional pieces that served the practical purpose of holding and pouring liquid. Various slave owner accounts hold that African-American slaves would use their face jugs to carry water into the fields with them. Other scholars believe that face jugs were used as a form of self-identification, or a self-portrait and perhaps were a way for slaves to deal with their physical displacement and loss of visual worth. Some folklore accounts held that these jugs were used for spiritual, rather than practical, purposes. It is believed that the jugs were buried outside of front and back doors to scare spirits away. It is also claimed that these jugs were used as grave markers and placed atop burial sites surrounded with the possessions of the deceased.
As folk art, face jugs have become a significant feature in the history of African-American art. Because formal ceramic skills to create face jugs were taught after America gained its independence, they are regarded as some of the first truly American pieces. Because of their interesting physical characteristics and historical context behind them, face jugs are important examples of African-American art and as the start of a theme of self-identification that would carry into the future. Some use these vessels may have been as political symbols. Most famously, it is believed that Dave the Potter, a slave who worked in the Miles mill where face jugs were made, was himself protesting against his status through ceramic pieces.
List of American makers
American art potters who create face jugs include:
- Georgia Blizzard
- Burlon Craig
- Robert A. Crook
- Jerry Dolyn Brown
- Max Freedman
- Lanier Meaders (1917–1998)
- Clayton Bailey
- Terry King of Seagrove, North Carolina
- Marvin Bailey
- Dal Burtchaell
- Lynn Thurman
- Paul Haigh
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- Selections of nineteenth-century Afro-American Art, an exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (fully available online as PDF), which contains material on face jugs