The Aesthetic of Power: Porcelain and the Expansion of White Saviorism

Photo by Fondazione Prada

by Sophia Ellis, Larissa Nez, Rai Mckinley Terry

In the late 18th century, Wedgwood porcelain became a desired luxury commodity among the British bourgeoisie. Today Wedgwood porcelain is featured on the pedestals of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and galleries across the world. Its notoriety is entangled with porcelain’s fraught history, extending from Asia to the Americas and converging with how we think about the power within ‘empire’ and ‘abolitionism.’ The infatuation with its whiteness and potential profit triggered a cycle of exploitation and theft. This overwhelming desire for the material even had a name — “porcelain sickness.” As scholars in public history and art, it is essential for us to (re)examine the reach of such contentious objects and their consequences.

The vivid accounts of Jesuits and ‘adventurers’ like Marco Polo provided an endless fascination with Chinese porcelain over the 15th and 16th centuries. Their writings describe China’s land and nation as possible sites for trade and profit. The circulation of the writings of these men seduced European readers to the idea of porcelain and created an imagined ‘Chineseness’ among white audiences. They manufactured a vision of China and paired it with the term “the far east,” which centralized western society geographically and ideologically. Their centrism continued when Europeans began calling the porcelain objects that sat on their tables ‘china,’ substituting a society with a physical object. This framework allowed Westerners to dehumanize a civilization in order to create a porcelain market in Europe.

Before the mid 18th century, no known sources for such material existed in Europe. By 1754 Britain had made it a national goal to imitate and reproduce Asian luxury goods. The Society for the Encouragement of Arts Manufactures and Commerce drafted a series of patents that would ban their importation, clearing the way for domestic production. In the case of porcelain, however, aesthetic theft was not just significant — it was essential to establishing a foothold in the global market. It was, therefore, necessary to replicate not only Chinese craftsmanship but also their recipe.

After finding small amounts of Kaolinite in Europe in the 1760s, British colonists began a race to file a patent for using the mineral in their clay recipes. Josiah Wedgwood, an English capitalist, known for his style of ceramics and the creation of the Anti-Slavery Medallion, was one of many manufacturers searching for Kaolin and sought to make porcelain marketable. In 1764, he received word that in the ‘New World’ there existed “white mountains” within Cherokee territory that might possess the Kaolin needed to make porcelain.

In 1765 Wedgwood sent his agent, Thomas Griffiths, to America to obtain the Cherokee clay from the Ayoree Mountains, located in what is now North Carolina. At the time of Griffith’s arrival in 1767, the Cherokee were vulnerable, recovering from the French-Indian War in addition to entering into treaties with European settlers.

Griffiths’ interactions with the “Copper Collour,d Gentry,” as he referred to the Cherokee Nation, are recounted in his journal. Based on his entries, Griffiths knew Cherokee protocols for trade and the importance of “White Earth’’ as a staple in their community. In his rush to steal as much clay as possible, the Cherokee arrested Griffiths for being a trespasser. He negotiated his freedom with their Nation by agreeing to two conditions: first, he would immediately compensate them for every ton of clay taken from their land, and second, he would give them the final product created from their White Earth. Following his release, Griffiths began trading and weaponizing alcohol against Cherokee leaders, debilitating their judgment so that he could steal the plunder successfully. In 1768, Griffiths returned to Wedgwood in England with the Kaolin he promised. According to financial records, Griffiths neither compensated nor provided gifts of the final product to the Cherokee.

This initial payload enabled Josiah Wedgwood to mass-produce porcelain, making it accessible to the broader European market. In doing so, he fed the flames of “porcelain sickness” and made himself a fortune. In 1998, the Wedgwood company boasted a profit of $52 million and remained one of the most profitable ceramic companies in Europe.

The revenue generated from Wedgwood’s ceramic products allowed him to create the Anti-Slavery Medallion at his Staffordshire factory in 1787. Immediately after, the British Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade adopted the medallion as their official seal. Wedgwood was the first of many companies whose wealth accumulation is tied to appealing to consumers’ growing appetite for white saviorism. Benjamin Franklin, then-president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, remarked that the image would be “more persuasive than written words in procuring favour to those oppressed people.”

The medallion’s symbol features a Black man, chained and on a bent knee in an imploring position, often accompanied with the words, “Am I Not A Man and a Brother?” The language is biblical in tone, intended to appeal to religious sensibilities. As Saidiya Hartman notes in Lose Your Mother, the depicted man raises his chained hands upwards toward the sky, begging this question to the heavens, but more importantly, to white society. By remaining outside of the frame, the white viewer can consume the representation of the enslaved Black man while retaining their distance from the violence of the image.

Following its creation and distribution throughout the late 18th century, the medallion became fitted in various forms; worn as a brooch, hairpin, stamped onto letters and engraved on writing boxes and plates. The symbol represents a class of trending images that depict Black suffering but are meant to assuage consumers’ moral concerns while also accumulating profits for corporations. Wedgwood may be considered one of the original global capitalists who invented a practice of philanthropy that appealed to the new “ethical consumer” class. These so-called “ethical consumers” embraced the trend of flaunting their latest merchandise to display their moral superiority. This practice of faux humanitarianism continues today through brand campaigns such as Project(RED) by Gap, the “Wear Their Names” jewelry line by The Gibbes Museum of Art, or the overwhelming adoption of the phrase “Black Lives Matter ‘’ as commercial propaganda.

We live in a time where the image of suffering is hypervisible across media outlets and as decorative “art” intended for the wealthy. The toll of Europe’s conquest for porcelain has extracted pain beyond measure. The legacy of porcelain is one of greed, the stains of which are carefully concealed beneath the smooth veneer of its white finish. Josiah Wedgwood’s expropriation of porcelain’s ingredients exemplifies how market expansion and ‘philanthropic’ actions are so often built upon coercive and extractive practices. When capitalist ideologies move public opinion without regard for inequitable power relations, those who are the targets of white saviorism become highly surveilled and are reduced to objects and symbols for consumption. Our responsibility is to refuse these practices by recognizing that we cannot buy our way into moral superiority through ethical consumption within racial capitalism.

Sophia Ellis is a Trinidadian-American artist, educator, curator, and cultural critic. She is a Master’s Student in Public Humanities at Brown University and studies public art, informal learning, and visual and material culture in the digital age. Her focuses center colonization and its afterlives in the art world and beyond. Sophia is interested in community learning spaces and arts-based education as practices of care.

Larissa Nez is a Dine citizen, scholar, writer, youth advocate, and curator. She is a Master’s Student in Public Humanities at Brown University. Her multidisciplinary research explores the intersections between Indigenous Studies, Black Studies, and critical theory as they relate to modern and contemporary art practices, public humanities, and the formation of collections and archives.

Rai Mckinley Terry is interested in engaging the spaces, physical and digital, that Black queer people occupy and adorn as reclamations of life and freedom. Rai graduated from Brandeis University with a degree in Black Arts and Social Theory and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Public Humanities at Brown University. Rai is both a fellow for the Study of the Public History of Slavery and the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Through their work, they hope to uplift Black agency and joy and utilize alternative forms of education to create truer public histories

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