POTTERY: RE-IMAGINING UAE HERITAGE
Ruth Impey received an NYU Abu Dhabi FIND Fellowship to research and re-ignite the pottery tradition of the United Arab Emirates that dates back to the 2nd millennium BCE and peaked with the Julfar kilns in the 15th and 16th century. Impey’s research has taken her to the mountains of Ras al Khaimah in search of clay and the descendants of potters who last used these traditional methods in the 1950's.
Having collected three tons of raw clay from the Hajar Mountains and built the test kiln ‘Updraft One’, I have begun the process of refining, tempering and testing the clay.
This is a rigorous process, which involves grinding the raw clay ‘slaking it down’ by adding water, blending it to create a pourable consistency, sieving it to remove impurities such as stones and organic materials and finally drying it before it can be tempered. I created a series of ‘slaking slucies’ to break down the raw clay and constructed a clay ‘hammock’ to dry the pure clay in preparation to accurately record the type of and weight of temper to clay.
Tempering the clay is a way of refining the character of clay by adding materials such as sand, crushed shells and various types of crushed rock in order to modify the properties of clay. The strength, porosity and thermal stress resistance of a clay can be altered by adding different tempers in different percentages; important considerations to be taken into account depending on the vessel type made. For example, a cooking pot and a storage jar, both typical of the Julfar potters, require different blends of clay. A cooking pot has to respond to thermal shock from the direct heat of a fire, a storage jar does not.
Ethnographic sources state that oyster shells, and possibly date palm, were used by the Julfar potters to temper the clay. However, my experience working with the son of a potter pointed to a different method. Two types of material were first crushed, sieved, then mixed together with water to create a workable clay paste, I have used this method as a base for my clay experiments. As well as working with and testing course clay blends, I aim to produce a throwing clay and am experimenting tempering the clay with different sands from the region to create a smoother clay paste. I have thrown different blends on the wheel and test fired them in an oxidation atmosphere to varying degrees of success.
Last year, I had the privilege of conducting the inaugural workshop for the Zayed National Museum (ZNM) and was thrilled to be able to talk about the history of Julfar Ware and to introduce participants to UAE clay as part of the ZNM Multaqa lectures. The title of the Multaqa was appropriately named ‘Unearthing a Rich History’ and couldn’t have been a better fit for my exploration of UAE clay and the forgotten art of UAE pottery making.
My experience working with the clay has deepened my admiration and respect for the skill, resourcefulness and determination of the Julfar potters. The mountain clay(s) are very dense and have a high shrinkage rate. The blends of clay are difficult to get right and require careful tempering, a skill which the Julfar potters perfected over nine centuries of production.
I am currently in the planning stages of the creation of ‘Updraft Two’: the replica Julfar kiln which will be built and fired at the Al Nakheel Society in Ras al Khaimah and am also in the process of creating a body of work centered on seven vessels made with UAE clay, which I hope to complete and exhibit in Abu Dhabi in 2016.
Project #1–100 Pots
Three years of research and discovery has made me realize that the history and archeology of the UAE is relevant and central to the body of work I’m creating. I want to produce a series of pots that represent both these aesthetic and historical themes.
The clay is the starting point. Millions of years old it has gone before and born witness to the unfolding story of the UAE. My search for tinn, the desire for authenticity in my making and the extraordinary history of the UAE has informed my thoughts regarding production.
My desire to make pots from UAE clay has lead me on an amazing search through UAE history to discover when the first pots were made during the Umm an Nar period and to the incredible story of the Julfar potters who worked with clay from the Hajar mountains for over nine centuries. They made pots that were transported over the Indian Ocean trade routes; pots that have left an indelible mark on the archeology of the UAE, the region and me. The last chapter in the story of these pots and their makers is tantalisingly recent, however the art of pottery making in the UAE is now but a memory.
The production of these pots made with UAE clay will be the culmination of three years of research, frustration, wonder and overcoming. I hope they are beautiful, I hope they echo the traditions and determination of the UAE potters and I hope they mark a significant next step in the recognition and revival of UAE pottery.
The pots will be made from UAE clay sourced in the Hajar mountains. The raw clay will be refined, blended and tempered by hand in the tradition of the Julfar potters. I plan to build a kiln chamber capable of holding one hundred pots. This one hundred pot series will represent a ‘snap shot’ of vessel types made at Wadi Haqil, utilizing statistical analysis taken from existing kiln research in a given period. These pots will echo the traditional shapes and biochrome designs of the Julfar potters. It seems to make more sense to me now to initially produce a body of work that has tangible links to the original output of the kilns.
Tinn — Seven Vessels, will now be produced in a second firing. Each pot will be hand coiled to create a series of seven open vessels.
The inside of each vessel will reveal a repeat graphic representation of a significant archeological or historical event in the history of the UAE. From a distance the design will appear an intricate pattern, only on closer inspection will the significance of what the pot contains become apparent. The designs will be created in the white and red slips of the Julfar tradition while the outside of each vessel will be left undecorated to reveal the true character of the UAE clay. The pots will be fired in an updraft kiln built specifically for this purpose.
I look forward to continuing my research in 2016.