Collection Explore
Essay
Ruth Opara
on Nigerian Clay Pots
Ruth Opara, a black, middle-aged woman, looking at a clay vessel in the museum collection.

Ruth Opara
Visiting Assistant Professor of Music
Skidmore College

Seeing the Nigerian vessel, also called clay pot, pot, or pot drum, at the Tang Teaching Museum invokes feelings of nostalgia for my childhood in the city and countryside of Nigeria. In the 1980s, a vessel was one of the most valuable household items in Nigeria. If a household had only one pot for water, it was likely found behind the kitchen door. But most families had more than one, placed in different corners of the house like the kitchen, bedrooms, and at the back of the house.

As the name implies, the clay pot is made with red clay, usually found near a stream, or with muddy soil. The clay is worked so that it holds firm when placed in a mold. When the molding is complete, the pot is kept under the hot sun or taken into a blazing furnace to dry. Then it is usually sterilized by turning the opening over a smoldering fire for more than thirty minutes before use.

There are no pre-designed molds into which the clay is cast, but rather, pots are made according to their functions. Potters hand-shape the clay before using patterned materials from soft woods, corncob, or textiles to make impressions on the body. Thus, it is difficult to find two clay pots with the same design or of exactly the same size. The patterns are functional rather than aesthetic: they give the pots a rough surface as a protective measure to aid in lifting them.

2000 1 15 pr w03
info Created with Sketch. plus Created with Sketch.
Unrecorded Nupe artist
vessel, possibly for water, n.d.
ceramic
Gift of Bill and Gale Simmons
2000.1.15

The clay pot, in its various sizes, is used to fetch water from the stream, preserve and cool drinking water, store clothes and jewelry, and serve as a musical instrument. In the city Owerri, where I was born, I had a pot in which I stored my clothes and one in which my family preserved cold water. I also played the pot drum in a girl’s dance group. This dance is accompanied by only a pot drum and a whistle. In the countryside, where my grandmother lived, I went to the stream with the clay pot to fetch water many times. Because the clay pot is delicate, we had to carry it with care: breaking it revealed a “carefree girl.” I have seen girls weep profusely when they mistakenly broke their pots.

The vessel was primarily used to preserve water because of its cooling effect—achieved through the hidden pores that allow for evaporation. My mother and grandmother covered pots to make sure that the water inside remained clean. Occasionally we washed and re-sterilized pots to avoid the growth of mold. After one of my stays with my grandmother, I returned home to the city and saw that my mom had replaced our vessels with Western-style suitcases and a fridge. With the introduction of the Western-style fridge, suitcases, and containers, the clay pot is no longer popular among Nigerians, especially those living in the cities. (It is still used for domestic functions sparingly in the countryside.)

However, the clay pot’s continued presence and relevance is manifest in Nigerian music. Traditional musical genres, hybrid musical styles, such as church art music that emanated because of contact with the West, utilize the pot drum as a metronome in ensembles. In music, the vessel shows its resilience as a Nigerian cultural artifact.

Ruth Opara, a black, middle-aged woman, in the Tang Museum's collection space looking at a clay vessel.
About Ruth Opara
Ruth Opara is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology and Women and Gender Studies. Her research areas include music in Africa, women in music, music, gender, and sexuality, Black Atlantic music, and hip hop. Opara received her BEd in Music Education from the University of Nigeria, MA from University of Louisville, Kentucky in Pan African Studies, and PhD from the University of Colorado Boulder in Musicology. She is currently working on her book African Women in Music: Gender, Agency, and Resistance in Igbo Land. She has taught in Nigeria and at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Cite this page

Opara, Ruth. “Ruth Opara on Unrecorded Nupe Artist.” Tang Teaching Museum collections website. https://tang.skidmore.edu/collection/explore/196-ruth-opara. First published in Accelerate: Access & Inclusion at The Tang Teaching Museum 3 (2019).

Learn more

Bill and Gale Simmons Gift
Collection
Unrecorded Nupe artist
Artist
2000 1 15 pr w02
vessel, possibly for water
Artwork
Convert?fit=crop&h=60&quality=95&w=60&compress=true&fit=crop
Containing Culture:
West African Pottery and Tradition
Exhibition
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