The following post – another in our Jamaica’s Art Pioneers series – was researched and written by Dwayne Lyttle, Curatorial Assistant at the NGJ.
Louisa Jones O.D., popularly known as Ma Lou, has been described as a national treasure and a master practitioner of the African-Jamaican pottery tradition.
At approximately nine years old Ma Lou started learning how to make clay pots, mainly from her mother, an uncle’s wife and three maternal aunts. By the age of thirteen she started to work as a potter full time and from that point on began a career which would span a period of 67 years. She primarily produced yabba pots, cooling jars, coal stoves and flower pots, particularly for household use and domestic applications. Of all the ceramic forms within the African-Jamaican tradition Ma Lou rarely made the water storage vessel known as the Monkey Jars.
Characteristically her pieces consist of terra-cotta earthenware bodies, predominantly completed without any decoration. However, her flower pot designs with there undulating edges and her yabbas with there single beaded line pattern, rounding the form, stand out as consistent and obvious exceptions. Additionally, she covered many of her cooking pots and yabba bowls with a bauxite dirt slip and burnished them with river stones to fashion their marble like sheen finish. Her pieces were always “signed” with four shallow finger impressions which were horizontally placed.
The African–Jamaican pottery tradition within which Ma Lou worked, evolved from a “syncretic” (Ebanks 1984) ceramic heritage which archaeological and ethnographic researchers suggest contains “a combination of European and African” (Ebanks 1984) elements. It has even been suggested that this tradition has some of its roots in the Precolumbian era. This syncretic tradition is believed to have emerged in Jamaica, sometime after the English capture of the island from Spain in 1655. Other experts have suggested, that Ma Lou’s execution of specific techniques within the tradition, namely vessel formation and firing, represent a distinctly “more African” (Baugh & Tanna 1999) approach to ceramic production as compared to other approaches within the same traditional vein.
When her work began to be described as a significant aspect of Jamaica’s cultural heritage and identity, Ma Lou’s pieces, production methods and biographical anecdotes where observed, recorded and popularized by journalist, historical researchers and visual arts professionals. Of note in this regard is the Jamaican master potter Cecil Baugh O.D. who during his life time did much to expose Ma Lou’s artistry, to his fellow Jamaicans and the world at large, especially through educational field trips to her home in Spanish Town – Jamaica’s first capital – and joint demonstrations with her both locally and abroad, most notably of which was their 1984 appearance at Broward College, Fort Lauderdale in the United States of America. Also, during 1984 an article largely detailing Ma Lou’s production processes, authored by Roderick Ebanks, was published in the Institute of Jamaica periodical Jamaica Journal.
Due to the growth of her popularity and critical acclaim, Ma Lou was provided with an exhibition space at the Peoples Museum of Craft and Technology in Spanish Town Square – now Emancipation Square and also exhibited works in the Annual National Exhibition (1981) and the Clay and Fire (2005) exhibition, which all were held at the National Gallery of Jamaica. In 1991 Ma Lou had a solo exhibition at the Petite Gallery in the capital of Jamaica, Kingston and of note during that exhibition were a few works by Merline “Munchi” Meggie, one of her daughter’s, who continues to produce pots in the African–Jamaican tradition to the present day, carrying on one of the oldest continuous artistic traditions on the island.
In 1986 Ma Lou was honoured with a Silver Musgrave Medal from the Institute of Jamaica and in 1988 she received the Order of Distinction from the Government of Jamaica.
Tanna, Laura, and Cecil Baugh. Baugh: Jamaica’s Master Potter. Kingston: DLT Associates, 1999.
Boxer, David et al. clay and Fire: Ceramic Art in Jamaica. Kingston: National Gallery of Jamaica, 2005.
Ebanks, Roderick. “Ma Lou and The Afro-Jamaican Pottery Tradition.”Jamaica Journal 17, no.3 (1984).