Paperback / softback
February 2, 2022
391 color illus., 12 maps, 8 b&w tables
9.00 Inches (US)
8.50 Inches (US)
3.6 Pounds (US)
$35.00 USD, £27.00 GBP
v2.1 Reference

Griot Potters of the Folona

The History of an African Ceramic Tradition

Griot Potters of the Folona reconstructs the past of a particular group of West African women potters using evidence found in their artistry and techniques.

The potters of the Folona region of southeastern Mali serve a diverse clientele and firing thousands of pots weekly during the height of the dry season. Although they identify themselves as Mande, the unique styles and types of objects the Folona women make, and more importantly, the way they form and fire them, are fundamentally different from Mande potters to the north and west.

Through a brilliant comparative analysis of pottery production methods across the region, especially how the pots are formed and the way the techniques are taught by mothers to daughters, Barbara Frank concludes that the mothers of the potters of the Folona very likely came from the south and east, marrying Mande griots (West African leatherworkers who are better known as storytellers or musicians), as they made their way south in search of clientele as early as the 14th or 15th century CE. While the women may have nominally given up their mothers' identities through marriage, over the generations the potters preserved their maternal heritage through their technological style, passing this knowledge on to their daughters, and thus transforming the very nature of what it means to be a Mande griot. This is a story of resilience and the continuity of cultural heritage in the hands of women.

About the Author

Barbara E. Frank is Associate Professor in the Department of Art at Stony Brook University. She is editor of Status and Identity in West Africa: Nyamakalaw of Mande, and author of Mande Potters and Leatherworkers. Art and Heritage in West Africa.


"Who are the potters of the Folona region of Mali, the wives of griots and not blacksmiths? These women clearly do not fit the dominant occupational paradigm of potters in the Mande world. What then are their histories? In order to answer this question and to uncover these women's complex identities that have been forged over generations, Barbara Frank takes the reader on a compelling journey across a wide swath of West Africa.  She provides us with a rich analysis of the oral histories of group migrations, the histories of the artisan groups, the potters' personal histories and their specific ceramic technologies. Her work challenges the deeply rooted scholarly notions of a fixed relationship between artisans and cultural identities among the Mande in Mali and within this larger region."—Dr. Mary Jo Arnoldi, Curator Emerita, African ethnology and arts, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

"Griot Potters of the Folona is one of the most comprehensive regional studies yet written on women's artistic production in sub-Saharan Africa. A landmark synthesis of forty years of research in the Mande heartland, the book is notable for its depth and scope of detail, mastery of the region's interdisciplinary literature, evidence from interviews with over 150 women potters, and comprehensive mapping of pottery styles and techniques onto regional history. Barbara Frank demonstrates persuasively that the movement of peoples across a region and the attendant transmission of culture and heritage are often far more vibrant than assumed, and that the roles of both men and women are crucial to reconstructions of these complex histories. Griot Potters of the Folona should be required reading for students of African art and expressive culture, especially for those living on the African continent, where future studies of still-thriving women's ceramic arts remain promising and urgent."—Marla C. Berns, Shirley and Ralph Shapiro Director Emerita, Fowler Museum at UCLA

"Barbara Frank's deep engagement with material culture, materiality, and embodied technique in this manuscript is consistent with the best art history carried out beyond western contexts in which written documentation may be scarce or absent.  In such cases, artistry is central to understanding the larger-scale traditions in which it occurs and how they changed over time but has equal or even greater impact as a source of information about the lives of the objects' creators, otherwise lost to history. The methodological contribution is also exemplary of what might be done by art historians in other regions of the world to create a robust line of evidence about previous centuries of gender, social, and political history, and there will therefore be many readers beyond West Africanists."—Adria LaViolette, University of Virginia

"This richly detailed longitudinal study of pottery traditions in a West African cultural crossroads will fascinate not only art historians but all students of African histories, languages, and identities. Frank dismantles the myths of monolithic caste identities by focusing on the feminine and mapping the flow of techniques through the work of women artisans situated in particular places and times, offering a much-needed adjustment to former understandings of pottery, caste, and gendered roles."—Barbara G. Hoffman, Cleveland State University

"Griot Potters of the Folona is the triumphant product of decades of determined, uncompromising effort to answer long-standing questions about transcultural connections and the history of relationships between gender and clan identities that influenced occupational choices. The impact of this superb body of research will be felt far beyond its stated boundaries, because the author has demonstrated a clearly effective methodology for untangling gnarled webs of ethnographic complexity."—David C. Conrad, Emeritus Professor of African History, SUNY-Oswego

"Griot Potters of the Folona excels in its detailed and nuanced engagement with women's histories as gleaned through their embodied and skilled potting practice at the same time as reminds us how models of casted crafting and histories narrated through the frame of majority ethnic groups elide the histories of minority artisan communities and the women who are central to creating and maintaining their vibrant cultural heritage."—Ann B. Stahl, International Journal of African Historical Studies

"This exceptional book is the culmination of 40 years of Frank's extensive field research, 30 of which she spent in the Folona region of southeastern Mali, West Africa.... This is an invaluable addition to the literature on craftswomen, pottery making, and gender in West Africa. Highly recommended"—C. A. Ventura, Tennessee Technological University, Choice

"Griot Potters of The Folona offers an intimate and vibrant tribute to women and artisanal communities with whom the author has shared so much of her time."—A. Delvoye, University of Geneva, African Archaeological Review
Indiana University Press
African Expressive Cultures

9780253058997 : griot-potters-of-the-folona-frank
Paperback / softback
526 Pages
$35.00 USD

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