One of Madagascar’s Special Arts
THE lovely display of clay vases, pots, and pans beckoned us as we strolled through the market of Antsirabe on our island home of Madagascar. Though all the pots were brown, they had large black blobs that seemed to be burned in. Curiosity impelled us to ask the young country boy selling them if our guess was right.
“Yes,” he said, “they have to be kiln dried to come out like this. But we don’t have modern, sophisticated ovens as in the cities. We use the traditional ways our fathers taught us.”
Though the boy graciously answered our further questions, his words merely aroused our desire actually to see such clay pottery being made. So off we drove to the remote place in the country where the villagers are clay-pottery experts. All were kind and hospitable. Pleased that city folk would be interested in their activities, they were more than willing to show us their secrets.
First of all, we learned that the clay they use is not ordinary clay at all. Ordinary clay, they say, easily breaks when heated. So they use a clay called tanimanga, (literally, “earth-blue”), found only in the country and on the banks of rivers or streams. One boy led us to the bank of a stream and dug in the ground. About a foot [30 cm] below the surface, there appeared some moist, gray earth—the tanimanga! Contrary to its name, however, in some places tanimanga is black or even yellowish. Nevertheless, it always contrasts with the usual red-orange soil of this central part of the island.
One man then told us that in order to make several vases or pots, he mixes one bag of tanimanga with one third of a bag of soft sand, also found on riverbanks. Then he adds some water to soften the mixture. How much is “some”? Precise measurements are not followed. Guided by experience, the potter stops adding water when he feels that the mixture has the right consistency—neither too solid nor too soft.
Next, this mixture of clay, sand, and water is placed on a mat of well-cleansed soil free of stones and straw. Then the potter treads it for a long time. This ensures that the clay is well mixed with the sand, which is the key to durable vases or pots. Several words in the Malagasy language describe this essential stage of pottery making: hitsahina, disahina, tehafina, volavolaina, totoina. Yet all refer to the same process—treading the clay mixture. When potters are sure the mixture is correct, they are ready to start actually making the clay pottery.
First they divide the mixture into balls the size of your fist. For the bottom of the pot, they take one ball and press it against the bottom of a mold—usually an old and worn-out clay pot—to make its shape. After taking the mold off, they use another ball to form the lip, or mouth, of the pot. During this process, the potters are careful not to let the mixture become too dry, for it could easily break.
The pots are now left to dry in the sun for a whole day. Only then are they ready for the final step: kiln drying. But even this is done in stages. All the pots and vases are stuffed with straw and dried leaves and are placed on their side on the ground. This kindling material is set on fire and is allowed to burn for about 10 or 15 minutes. This hardens and strengthens the clay.
After that first burning, the pots are placed on another space covered with straw and dried leaves. This time, however, the pots are arranged opening against opening. The potters then put straw and dried leaves on top of and around the pots until they are buried. They then surround this area with lumps of earth in order to contain the fire within this area and to prevent the pots from rolling away. The kindling material is again set on fire and left to burn for at least 30 minutes or until the fire dies of itself. After the pots cool, they are taken out of the ashes and are ready for use.
Examining the pots closely, we could now understand those black blobs on the pots. They were the parts that were in direct contact with the fire. The rest of the pot was the usual color of burned clay—orange-brown.
This art of making pots has been passed on from generation to generation. We met a fellow who worked at a big textile factory in town but made some extra money by also making and selling pottery. He had learned the art from his father, who, in turn, had learned it from his father. And we are sure that the young man won’t miss the opportunity to teach it to his children.