Pottery Perception: Mapping the Meanings of Material Culture in Africa

ROM Magazine, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Pottery Perception: Mapping the Meanings of Material Culture in Africa


Silvia Forni takes a hands-on approach to her research. Literally. The new curator of the ROM's African collections spent almost a year in the Grassfields region of Cameroon learning traditional pottery techniques--a role that placed her perfectly to study how material culture there relates to gender differences and serves as a means of cultural expression and identity. The village women eagerly welcomed her as their daughter, teaching her the skills they wished they could teach their granddaughters. Silvia, a native of Turin, Italy, understands the young women's refusal to learn this traditional skill in terms of material culture. "Certain objects express, in their making and their use, models of personhood," she says. "In the village where I worked, clay pots are very strongly connected to womanhood. Refusal to make them is a rejection of the traditional role of women they are trying to go beyond."

As an undergraduate, Silvia was inspired to study Africa by one of her anthropology professors. She was thrilled when the opportunity came up to work in Algeria, and later she also studied in Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Madagascar, as well as Cameroon.

At the ROM, Silvia will draw on her extensive fieldwork to research and build on the Museum's fine African collections, part of which will be on permanent display for the first time in the new Shreyas and Mina Ajmera Gallery of Africa, the Americas, and Asia-Pacific. The dense exhibits reflect the rich cultural traditions from many areas of Africa, examining themes such as state and traditional power, religious beliefs, and everyday life. "Pottery continues to be one of my great interests," she says. …

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