Ethiopian potters are traditionally women and inherit their skills from their mothers. Typical functional pottery includes desti (pots), insera (water pot), and mitad (injera pan). Many of the items are essential elements of the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony including the jebena(coffee pot), gulcha (stove), and arso (incense burner). Most of the pieces are burnished and finished with a black color although often speckled with brown and reddish hues.
In the south and southwest of Ethiopia potters will often decorate the pots with their fingers or pieces of straw. Decoration usually includes straight lines in v-shapes or horizontal series or a ring of small bumps around the pot. One of the largest pieces made in Ethiopia is the gani (brewing pot) which is used to prepare local beer.
Pottery Making Techniques
Traditional Ethiopian pottery is made from three types of clay collected by hand. The clay is pulverized into a powder and mixed with water to create a flexible paste. Most potters do not use a potter’s wheel but rather a flat, round plate which supports the piece of pottery and also indicates size and shape of the piece. In recent years, some potters have received help from development programs which provide them with pottery wheels and training on modern pottery making techniques. Those working without a wheel build pots using either the spiral coiling technique or a traditional method of moving around the pots.
Once the basic shape is created, the artisans dry the unfired form in the sun. Many potters then burnish their pottery to make the exterior shiny. Burnishing is typically very time consuming and involves rubbing dried (but unfired) pottery with a smooth river stone, piece of bamboo, or leather rag to give the piece a smooth and shiny surface texture. Burnishing was developed before glazes existed to make pottery more waterproof. After burnishing, the artisans fire the pottery in a rudimentary kiln, often only a hole in the ground, where the objects are covered and fired with dry cow dung and hay. Usually potters in the same village will share a firing area that is used only once a week.
Most Ethiopian pottery is either natural clay colored or black. The black color is created by coating the object in oil and then firing it in the kiln. After, the objects are left to cool under a mound of dried eucalyptus leaves giving them a black patina. Although most pottery is unglazed, some potters in the South will waterproof pots by heating them and then pouring cold milk into the pot or using the residue of local beer or coffee to seal it. Alternatively, a small group of potters use a simple resin glaze made from the leaves of the ketketa bush or from the sap of the euphorbia. Occasionally, artisans will paint pottery after it has been fired to add further decoration. Recent efforts have been made to improve Ethiopian pottery and a few cooperatives located near Addis Ababa have successfully worked with women to create high quality pottery products.