NIXI TIBETAN POTTERS, YUNNAN CHINA
Nixi Artisan Potters
The Nixi Potters live in Tandui Village, nestled in a bucolic valley on the Tibetan plateau at 10,000 feet in Yunnan, China. The city of Shangri-la, a tourist destination famous for fresh air, Chinese herbs and Tibetan Culture, is a half hour drive away. The villagers are artisans and farmers, the heirs to a 1200-year-old tradition of pottery production threatened with extinction during the Chinese Cultural Revolution after which time only three artisan families remained in the village. In the ensuing decades the numbers of Nixi potters has steadily increased. There are now 120 artisan families in the village.
Traditional Nixi pottery is utilitarian black ware with decorative porcelain inlay and carving, used by all Tibetan households for cooking, and cultural and religious ceremonies. This deep tradition of pottery production is the social glue that provides community cohesion and economic opportunity for the entire village. Training of young artisans is done exclusively through apprenticeship with one of the village pottery masters. Apprentices begin by creating their own set of tools from rhododendron root, horn and leather. Apprenticeship is a slow process yet many of the younger generation are now making this choice.
Of the 120 families currently involved in pottery making, nearly all are also subsistence farmers. Farming economically augments pottery production. The villagers grow wheat, barley and forage for valuable Maitake mushrooms in the surrounding mountains. Over the past 10 years, programs with Aid to Artisans and The Mountain Institute helped with the continuing revitalization of the Nixi tradition. The focus of both these programs has been cultural preservation and economic development. More specifically the program was to improve craftsmanship quality, introduce new traditional based designs and contemporary marketing concepts to in response to the growing tourist market in the region.
In the last few years, a number of the Nixi potters have participated in cultural exchange tours visiting potters and ceramic studios in the United States and Jingdezhen in China. Traveling and cultural exchange has broadened the perspective of the potters and exposed them to a wider audience. The villagers are becoming part of the modern world with a revitalized craft that is increasingly more profitable. The potters have expanded marketing by welcoming visitors to the studio for demo’s and are displaying their wares in more attractive ways. They are now firing in more sustainable kilns, and incorporating designs with an expanded vocabulary of Tibetan motifs, thereby preserving their traditions while growing what is a living artisan practice.
Kathy Erteman and the Nixi Potters
I have worked with the Nixi potters on three occasions, initially as a design consultant and trainer, subsequently as an organizer and participant in cultural exchanges in China and the United States. The first, in 2007, was as part of a joint program between Aid to Artisans and The Mountain Institute. I was recruited as a ceramic designer and potter to conduct a ten-day hands-on workshop with the Nixi potters in their village on the Tibetan Plateau. The workshop focused on improving craftsmanship quality and introducing new designs and marketing. I had little information about where I was being sent or much about the pottery.
After 24 hours of air travel I landed in a valley surrounded by snow capped mountains much like photos I had seen of Tibet. The first day was spent touring dusty piles of black pots in front of roadside shops near Tandui village. Many pots were chipped or missing lids. It was difficult to get a sense of why this pottery was important and how I could help. Ten days later however, I gained an understanding of its value and place in the culture. During these 10 days I conducted workshops in craftsmanship and presented an international contemporary pottery slide show to all village potters, and completed samples for several new tradition based designs. It was a meaningful exchange for all, working artisan to artisan. I experienced the warm and generous nature of the potters and had a village of new friends with whom many years later I continue to keep in contact .
In 2009 and again in 2012, programs sponsored by The Mountain Institute and Aid to Artisans provided me with opportunities to work with the Nixi potters in more extensive programs integrating cultural preservation and economic development. I conducted workshops in the village and organized cultural exchange tours for twenty Nixi potters in the United States and the ceramic mecca of Jingdezhen.
In Jingdezhen, their Chinese colleagues welcomed the Nixi potters with great enthusiasm. Meeting fellow potters and experiencing appreciation of their work while selling all the pots they brought was a great boost to the potters. An observer noted that in Jingdezhen “the potters were treated like rock stars” by Chinese colleagues as they presented their work outside the Tibetan community for the first time.
In the United States, the potters presented their work and techniques to fascinated audiences of makers, collectors and educators, selling out their wares. Generous hosts in Los Angeles, Ashville, Santa Fe, New York and Washington DC, facilitated forums for the Nixi Potters to meet American potters, visit studios, demonstrate their working process and sell pots.
The Nixi Potters have begun to see tangible results at home from their efforts to reach out in new directions. It is clear that their rich tradition is succeeding economically as well as preserving history and culture in the form of the ceramic vessel.