The first time I saw a pot made by Dave, sometimes known as Dave the Potter or David Drake, was at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 2019. The year before, I had moved from Singapore, where I was born and have spent most of my life, and as a writer, I’ve always relished spending time with art, opening myself to other imaginative possibilities. That afternoon, I joined a tour of museum highlights. Instead of focusing on the Monets, John Singer Sargents and Georgia O’Keeffes that the museum was famous for, the guide led our group into a gallery of American art which I had never really noticed on previous visits. Among the ornate paintings and objects that dominated the room, she gathered us around a large, ordinary-looking jar. It was dark brown, streaked vertically with a sand-beige glaze and about half a metre wide, with two notches for lifting it. 

The guide drew our attention to the words inscribed below the rim:

I made this Jar for cash–
though its called lucre Trash

Below it was the word Dave etched in a cursive flourish, the tail of the e trailing off to the right.

The guide told us that Dave had been an enslaved Black man in South Carolina. He made the pot under what must have been harrowing, likely brutal conditions and, remarkably, had chosen to leave his personal stamp on it—not only his name, the date (Aug 22, 1857) and the name of his white enslaver (LM for Lewis Miles), but also the two lines of verse quoted above, brief, cryptic yet expressive of his social reality. Dave was caught up in a world where cash or lucre drove human activity—“capitalism”, we would call it today. Just as Miles sold the jars made by Dave to enrich his pottery manufacturing business and himself, so too had Dave, born into slavery, been repeatedly sold for cash and profit against his will (Miles was his fourth enslaver, at least).

The guide said that regrettably little was known about Dave’s life. Nevertheless, she emphasised the high level of skill and craftsmanship he had possessed to create such a heavy, enormous and sturdy object of elegant proportions. His work was also a reminder of the millions of enslaved people in the United States whose names and labour had been made invisible or erased from the countless things they produced, from food and raw materials to artistic works.

As the tour moved on, I lingered at the jar. Its plain appearance made it seem out of place, surrounded as it was by elaborately painted and ornamented artworks. Yet, it radiated a vital energy, a luminous brown beacon claiming the right to be examined and valued with as much seriousness and depth as an Impressionist painting. I returned to see it on subsequent visits, considering the man named Dave and the historical silences around the work he made.

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