The Art of Burkina Faso

by Christopher D. Roy (1947-2019)
University of Iowa

Post-Fire Decoration:

While the jars are still glowing red from the heat of firing, most potters pull them from the hot ashes and slap them with green leaves dipped in a thick brown vegetable soup. This is a heavy reduction technique that is virtually identical to the raku techniques of Japanese potters, and it has similar results. Pots are darkened to a shiny black finish that resembles a glaze, and the sudden change in temperature creates tiny fissures in the walls of the jars that increase their resistance to thermal shock. As a result, jars blackened by quick reduction can be used for cooking over open flames without shattering. The reduction and the layer of vegetable glaze left behind also make the jars more waterproof, so that the technique is not used for jars that are to serve as water coolers. The vegetable soup may be made from any vegetable material, but the seed pods of the locust bean (Acacia nilotica) are most frequently used, boiled in water until one or two gallons of very thick red-brown liquid remain in the jar. Some pots may be reduced simply by smothering them while still red-hot in a thick layer of dry grass or millet chaff. As the reducing agent is applied, the hot jars give off clouds of steam.

By its nature, decoration applied to pottery after the firing is transitory, because it is not fired into the clay body of the jar. Other than the rich black surface that results from reduction, and for which Lobi jars are particularly famous, the potters of Burkina do not apply very much post-fire decoration. Potters among the Bobo and Senufo in the west, and among the Songhai in the north, apply colorful clay slips to jars after firing, but these wash off quickly with use.

Traditional pottery techniques are in no danger of disappearing in Burkina Faso. Although the sale of enameled tinware and of cast metal cooking pots has cut the demand for earthen jars slightly, most peoples claim to prefer the taste of food prepared in earthenware, and women who prepare millet beer state emphatically that they cannot sell beer brewed in metal containers.