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Majiayao culture explored

Article written by Mechtild Paauwe for the November edition of Clay Ceramics Magazine 2019

Aboriginal art is known for its dots. Nowadays, China is working to put the patterns of the Majiayao culture on the map. If you look at the modern lines on this pottery, you don’t expect it to be 5000 years old! Currently, examples of these beautifully painted pots can be admired in various countries. At this moment you can find the old Majiayao pots in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the East Asian Museum in Stockholm.

The history

The Majiayao culture was a group of Neolithic communities that mainly lived in the upper Yellow River region in eastern Gansu, eastern Qinghai and northern Sichuan, in north-western China. The culture existed from around 3300 to 2000 BC.

In 1924, Swedish geologist Johan Gunnar Andersson discovered the earthenware pots with the painted lines at a market. He asked the seller where he got them. At first he did not want to give this away to the Swede. Later the Swede sent out a helper and he received the requested information after a generous donation. Andersson eventually found the archaeological site near the village of Majiayao, in the vicinity of the present medium-sized town of Lintao. During the excavations themselves, there was so much material found that the conclusion can be drawn that this was a structured production site of Majiayao pots that were probably sold via the Silk Road. The red earthenware clay is still visible everywhere in the area.

The project

In order to make the Majiayao culture known, the Chinese government  asked Jackson Li (artist and owner of the Sanbao Int. Ceramics Centre in Jingdezhen), together with the Dutch Simone Haak (co-founder and owner of Terra Delft Gallery), to invite a dozen international artists to create work inspired by this ancient culture in five weeks’ time. This work would then be exhibited together with the 5000 year old Majiayao pots in the Lintao museum. Sanbao and Terra Delft have been working closely together since 2012, and every year artist-in-residence projects and exhibitions are organized, both in China and in Delft.

The international participants

The artists originated from nine different countries. Liesbeth Kamp, Saskia Pfaeltzer and Mechtild Paauwe came from the Netherlands. Belgium was represented by Marc Janssens and Mieke Everaert. Germany was represented by Martin McWilliam and John Higgins came from England. The Swedish Paul-Robin Sjöström and the Danish Morten Løbner Espersen were from the north of Europe. Sangwoo Kim was the participant from France. From further away Jay Lu came from New Zealand, Vilma Villaverde from Argentina and Hidemi Tokutake from Japan. Simone Haak accompanied the group.

Marc Janssens:  ‘We were invited with a dozen artist, it was a high quality group with a lot of diversity; we worked hard but also made time for fun.

I make figures, most of the time I get the inspiration on the spot. This time it became a figure with multiple ears because the title of the work period was: “The sound of Majiayao”. I asked one of the last traditional painters of the village, who is painting new Majiayao ceramic pots himself, to paint my figure with the Majiayao decoration technique and paint. Especially the earthy colours and the clay gave a special atmosphere to my work.

The stay on the spot

On the outskirts of the city of Lintao (150.00 inhabitants) runs the Tao River, which flows into the Yellow River. Directly next to the river is a large complex that consists of several houses, furnished as a ceramic center that can accommodate many artists. Each house even has its own studio space. There is also a large joint studio where the ceramists came together to work every day with the local clay. Each received a personal assistant who took care of translation or the necessary attributes. Most of them were students themselves at one of the art academies.

To get acquainted with and inspired by the Majiaya culture, the whole group went to the archaeological centre in Lintao. On the ground were thousands of shards of pots. Some with a part of a pattern on it, others with a fine texture in it.

John Higgins: ‘The idea for my project developed as I became familiar with the historical  culture, the experience of living and working closely with fellow artists and assistants, the generosity of our hosts and the opportunity to travel to sites of specific interest relating to the cultural festival taking place at the end of our stay.

My project was an installation, something I have not approached before, and was entitled : “An Overwhelming Sense of Sharing”  At its final presentation, It consisted of  four large rectangular plates and on each were placed a large container with handle, and three tea cups. Various methods of construction were used, and the decoration was influenced by the traditional Majiayao pots.

On reflection this residency was, for me, the journey and experience of a lifetime. It was a wonderful opportunity to experience the rich cultural history of a country that I had no previous knowledge of and to experience it very directly. From a personal creative point of view working in a setting and with materials and processes that demanded a new approach to working was both challenging and creatively renewing.’

On the shelves were pots that consisted of puzzle pieces glued together. The strange thing is that the pots seem to be perfectly round. You’d think they were made on the turntable at the time, but at that time the wheel hadn’t even been invented yet! The brush had already been invented at that time. The pots were made of very thin rolls, perfectly following the curve of a round pot. Also very special is that on the back (i.e. the inside of such a shard) the fingerprints of the makers can be seen. By holding a shard with your own fingers, you had the idea to have contact with someone from the distant past.

The owner of the centre proudly showed a special find, a small tapering dish with a red spot on the inside. It was the dish in which the dye was prepared for dyeing the patterns. How exactly they made the dye was not told, that remains a secret of which China is the owner.

Afterwards, the group went on to the museum where the work they made would be displayed after five weeks. In China everything is large and this building was no exception. The building consists of five floors. The exhibition of the old Majiaya pots was very professionally arranged. It showed how varied the patterns of this culture were. So different but all perfectly continuous on the pot.

The following weeks all worked hard in the studio. Everyone with their own project and their own way of interpreting the Majiayao culture. Because the clay is different from the clay at home and  also the firing was different, regularly pieces broke down. Sometimes  great frustration, sometimes  great joy when something worked out well. We all empathized with each other.

The exhibition was widely announced in the city. The work of each artist could be seen in each bus shelter and so a visit to the city was a delight. The opening in the museum was linked to that of the cultural festival. The opening was grand and spectacular and the participants were presented on a stage which Mick Jagger would envy. It was a unique experience for everyone. Working in a totally different environment in which you didn’t speak the language and the customs were so different, broadens your view.

Morten Løbner Espersen: ‘I enjoyed the delicious Chinese food and met great people from all over the world. We have seen beautiful landscapes during our cultural getaways.

The old Majiayao ceramic culture touched me. I get emotional when I see those very simple, yet characteristic shapes. Or when I think of the masterpieces that mankind has made in clay over time. The pronounced Majiayao ceramics remind me of the Neolithic ceramics from my part of the world. These archetypal pieces are closely related to each other, or are they all the same pots born from the same needs and ideas?

Being away from my own environment has shaken me. I now look at myself in a different way, resulting in a new and fresh perspective. I love that. It can be difficult or even hard, but when it’s over and the dust has settled, I feel refreshed and lively.’

Once at home, you only realise the impact of this wonderful journey. The clay was different, the firing was different, but what connects is the love for clay, the pleasure in making and working together, with the beautiful result of breathing new life into the Majiayao culture. An experience for life!

This project was made possible with support and financial contributions from:

International Academy of Ceramics (Geneva), Gansu Province, Lintao Museum, Central Academy of Art, Beijing, Film Academy Beijing, Jingdezhen University, Inner Mongolia University, Shanxi University, Jinan University, Cultural Heritage and Creative Industry Research Institute, Changxin International Art College, Yunnan University, Sanbao International Ceramics Centre, Galerie Terra Delft.