Ghana, NCECA Residency 2010. An Extreme Case of Creation

from the left, Abisboba, Sharon (nicknamed Ayampok-beire- ‘little Ayampoka’), Ayampoka and Faustina pounding clay at SWOPA.

Sharon Virtue in Ghana with SWOPA(Sirigu Womens Organization for Pottery and Art.)

The main entrance to SWOPA.
I spent three weeks in a remote village called Sirigu, in the North of Ghana, working with local potters. They taught me their traditional hand-building techniques, decorative motifs and firing process. The local tribe of Nankani live in earthen houses that resemble large pots. These women have lived and worked this way for thousands of years, generation after generation.Unfortunately, the knowledge of their craft is now being lost.
The first week was spent in the workshop with my three teachers, Faustina, Ayampoka and Abisboba. During my stay at SWOPA they became my mentors and main support as well as good friends. Faustina, the youngest, would translate between English and Fra Fra, the local Nankani language.

We pounded clay from the nearby river. It took a day to process a 50lb batch. I was humbled as I watched Ayampoka, the eldest, and Abisboba coil pots at top speed, sliding them, as if on a wheel, across the floor on a bed of red grog. They compress the clay at the same time as joining the coils with their thumb and forefinger. Using their basic tools and some water they even out and shape the top of the pots, which look thrown when completed. After a week of practicing this technique, I gave up trying to create coil pots. It would have taken much more time than I had, and I had another agenda.
A typical day in the studio, sitting on the floor to do everything. I realize how strong your stomach and back have to be. This also did not last long. Eventually I was standing at the table.
Painting the local red earth pigment onto pots before burnishing.
Pots after burnishing. Now they can add other pigments, black and white.
The day of the firing. I didn’t think it was possible, but the pots were bisque fired in less than 2 hours.

Typical house of the region. This section of the compound is called the Denyanga. this contains the rooms for the eldest woman living in the compound.

Ayampoka and me, ‘Ayampok-beire’ (as they nicknamed me little Ayampoka). Waiting for the fire to cool down outside her house.
Another local compound. So wonderfully cool inside.
In Africa, especially this region of the Sahel, all resources are limited. This becomes the determining factor in how people live their lives. There is a time and a place for everything, especially during the dry season, five months with no rain. During this time, all energy goes toward harvesting and storing food and preparing for scarcity. The laborious production method meant that clay was also scarce. I decided to work on small hand-sized maquette sculptures to explore my ideas. The constant question from those around me was, “What are you doing?” “What are those things for?” For these people everything has a function, a reason. Those questions made me examine the purpose of what I was doing here.
The road to the market.
The beautiful local kiddies that would watch and help out when i needed it. They were like little birds.
Pots outside a house.

I went to art school in the West and, therefore, in the privileged position of making art for art’s sake. I explained this to my Nankani friends … that my ceramic work had no particular function, just as decorating their houses did not serve a function. It was an aesthetic choice. The work I was making was the result of inspiration from things I was seeing around me. I was absorbing and processing my experiences of this place and the people who lived here and the everyday things of life.
Street art. These orange trees were everywhere. I love them.

A pot sealed with mud to keep the bugs out.

Durcas and Erica on a fig picking expedition.
This is Apolala Akaba. One of the local elders. She was afflicted with Elephantitis.

As gruesome as it seems, I was even inspired by Apolala’s affliction. The texture and colour of the skin on her leg made me think of fetish figures covered with dry cracked dirt. This medical condition inspired the title of my report, “An extreme case of creation.”
A beautiful hand made toy carrying a load of medication used for Elephantitis.

A trippy local fermented drink made from Shea butter, which they use in cooking. The trees are all over the place. (It was stinky beer, I didn’t try it).
Local chief outside my friends compound in Burkina Faso.
The environment and the rhythm of Nankani life had a visceral impact on my work.In the dry season, the heat is oppressive and constant, it is all prevailing, it infiltrates all your thoughts, and reduces you to a heap of sweaty exhaustion.In the bright daylight, people gather seeds and harvest their fields.All night a bat would call outside my window, the drumming from a nearby ritual space carried on until the moon set, and just before dawn the sound of someone gently sweeping the fallen dry leaves.

For more images of the work created on this residency go to:
This residency provided me a sense of freedom. I felt excited, playful and unattached to the outcome. It helped me to achieve a method of exploration that I had not had the courage to try in the studio setting. I know this will be a benefit to my growth as an artist in the future. I’m honored to have been a part of it, even for a short time. I have learned so much, not just about the Nankani tribe and culture, but also about myself, my work and my process of creation.

Truely Africanized Ayambok-beire, complete with live chicken and cup of local tea.