Ceramics, food and Indigenous identity

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Why does food taste so good cooked in and eaten off clay vessels?

Exactly one year ago, I was in the Rupununi, Guyana working with potters from Fly Hill. The aim was to revalorise the crafting process of Indigenous pottery, with the goal to create an economic livelihood and strengthen Indigenous identity. Six Makushi potters were involved: Combrencent Ernest, Latea Hendricks, accompanied by her three-month year old daughter, Timmy Hendricks, Everisto James, Nicodemus Lawrence and Janet Charles.  During our time together, we explored traditional livelihoods and practices, traditional stories, and everyday activities as ways for the potters to think about and create forms, designs, motifs and patterns. Fishing, hunting, farming, the environment and wildlife they live with, featured highly in their work.

Funded through a British Council Crafting Futures grant, the project was a collaboration with Yupukari Village, Caiman House, the local ecotourism business and Wabbani, the village enterprise working on developing crafting livelihoods.

As in other parts of the world, Indigenous craft practices are on the decline in Guyana, and there are only a small number of potters remaining in the Rupununi, mostly in Toka Village and St. Ignatius. When we exhibited the potters work in Yupukari, many visitors commented on the tuma and pepperpots, and how they remember the recipes of their mothers and grandmothers and food tasting so good cooked in clay. This highlights that craft is intimately linked into the everyday practices and lives of people – the tuma pot is used to cook a traditional dish that needs ingredients – cassava products, fish, meat, vegetables, linked to practices of farming, fishing and hunting. Tuma pots can promote nutritious Indigenous diets, which in turn can maintain good health and wellbeing.

More information about the project is in the book “Rekindling the Indigenous practice of pottery in Guyana. A collaborative sketchbook’, published in September 2020. It aims to promote Indigenous pottery, and craft more widely in Guyana. And having received a little more funding, I hope to continue the work with the Fly Hill potters later this year!

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Jay Mistry
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Professor of Geography - Royal Holloway University of London

Jay has more than 22 years’ experience in teaching, researching and building capacity for natural resource management with local communities. Her particular interests include supporting local livelihoods and biodiversity conservation, local environmental governance, action research using participatory video and capacity building for natural resource management.