Decorated adobe houses used to be common in northern Ghana. Today they can be seen primarily around the village of Sirigu, about fifteen miles from Bolgatanga. The women use colored mud and minerals to decorate their houses with intricate geometric and animal designs painted in black, white and rust red.
These decorations are an expression of the cultural identity of the community. To an outsider, they are bold and geometric—triangles, diamonds, lozenges--arranged in horizontal bands and interspersed with animals in relief. To the community, the patterns use a visual vocabulary steeped with meaning. When a woman decorates her house, she references folk tales, tells the world who she is and invokes protection through images such as the python and crocodile.
If wall decorating is a statement by each woman of who she is and of her place in the community, pottery is a commercial endeavor that provides income. Even with the introduction of plastic, pottery is still used for cooking and to hold water, grain, and other food.
Pottery also plays an important role in marriage and funeral celebrations. A kemaniga is a stack of five pots for storing food. The top pot has a lid tied on with cord and is used specifically to store smoked food. The stacked pots are given to a young women by her mother when marries. At the end of a woman’s life, at her funeral, the surviving women of her family take her kemaniga and break it to pieces so the pots can travel with the deceased.
Women make pots from coils. Before the pot is dry, relief decorations may be added and patterns incised in the clay, much as are done to the house walls. Many of the pots are decorated with the same designs as the walls. Geometric designs are most common, but snakes and other zoomorphic forms may also be added. Firing is simple. In a field near a family compound, the pots are carefully stacked on a bed of millet straw, covered with bundles of straw and set on fire for a few hours. Vegetable-based decorations can be painted on after the pots are fired.
In the past, the women of Sirigu sold their pots the same way other rural potters sell their wares, stacking them on their heads and walking to the market. If they started walking at 2:30 in the morning, they could be at the Navrongo market by opening time. At the end of the day, if they haven’t sold enough pots, they would barter the pots for food and other essentials, and walk back home. At the same time, fewer and fewer houses were being painted. It was too expensive and time consuming for the women. Sirigu was losing more than a traditional craft. House painting has been a social glue for the community, and that cohesion was being lost.
In 1997 the Sirigu Women’s Organization of Pottery and Art (SWOPA) was formed to bring income and recognition to the potters and wall decorators. Realizing tourists came to Sirigu to see the painted houses and that they would be willing to pay far more for the pottery than the women get in the market, SWOPA began helping the women sell their work to visitors. They built a gallery and began to charge for tours of the houses. They now teach workshops and run a guest house so visitors can stay and enjoy the generous hospitality of the community. Pottery and wall painting have become a source of both community pride and significant income for the women in Sirigu.
To learn more about SWOPA, please visit www.swopa.org.
Ann Schunior is a potter and her work is inspired by traditional crafts around the world. Her pottery forms come from the unfailing shapes of simple functional ware, but her surface designs come from animal imagery on petroglyphs, wood carvings and fabric paintings of Native American and African cultures. Ann travels widely to meet craftspeople that still work in the old ways.To learn more about Ann, please visit her website, Ann’s Pottery, www.annspottery.com.