From Patatje-Special to nipple disks: ceramists on a sustainable tour in the Princessehof in Leeuwarden

In the Princessehof Ceramics Museum in Leeuwarden there is an exhibition about the sustainability of ceramics: Sustainable Ceramics #1. Artists use shards, asbestos and old newspapers. From Patatje-Special to nipple disks.

Go to the thrift store and look at the bottom of plates. On it you see stamps from all kinds of factories in Europe, which no longer exist. Companies from Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Lithuania, Russia, Scandinavia, Silesia, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and Slovenia. They made tableware industrially, according to the techniques and methods that Joshua Wedgwood invented in the 18th century. An enormous pottery industry emerged in the triangle between Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, which was followed throughout Europe.

Factories often bought the tableware in England and put their own stamp on it. Or they used material from Stoke-on-Trent and worked according to British methods. “There was a ‘technology transfer’, according to the German artist Kerstin Abraham. Production has now moved to Asia and Eastern Europe. Only a handful of factories are still active in the British region, and unemployment is high.

With curator Wendy Gers from Princessehof Ceramics Museum, Abraham went to thrift stores in and around Leeuwarden where she managed to collect dozens of plates from factories that no longer exist. Hence the title of her installation: Absence . She left some nails empty, waiting for the next factory to collapse. Abraham: “The German Meissen will probably go bankrupt at the end of this year. This company depends on one type of clay and one particular type of Russian gas. It cannot simply convert production, all ovens are set up for this.”

Pages from newspapers and magazines

Abraham made a second installation with second-hand plates, Palimpsest . Tresoar kept old ones for this purpose NRC ‘s for her, the newspaper she chose because of its layout. She has covered a wall with pages, supplemented here and there with pages from German and Italian magazines. “Newspapers used to be widely used as an intermediate layer in wall coverings. Wallpaper adheres better to it and newspaper insulates.”

Abraham has sometimes used elements from newspaper photos for her drawings, or she draws clay ovens, for example, referring to the ceramics industry. “I reuse my drawings on different surfaces.” Depending on the type of board, they always look different. “Look,” she points. “Here I have reused a mathematical formula from a teacher.” She has made some plates herself from leftover clay that she mixes together. “I recycle all the clay, then you get special effects.”

Endangered species

She is frugal, because the raw materials for pottery are finite. Clay mines are becoming depleted and so are the mines where minerals for glazing are extracted, such as zinc, tin, copper and cobalt. In the exhibition Sustainable Ceramics #1 artist Sara Howard from London has placed cups with a glaze of these minerals. She has classified these according to the guidelines used internationally to classify endangered species. After all… materials are scarce and the arrival of electric cars (with batteries) is only increasing the demand for them.

Howard also works with Kevala Ceramics in Bali (Indonesia), where they have found a method to use waste products as raw materials. Benedetta Pompili, a designer from Amsterdam, does something similar, who mixed clay from the Maas with fireclay made from processed asbestos. This chamotte strengthens the clay, and the asbestos is now a safe by-product to work with: insulating, light and durable.

The production of ceramics is not only unsustainable, not only because of the finite nature of raw materials, but also because of the firing of clay at high temperatures. Some artists therefore work with existing ceramics and give them their own twist. For example, Olivia Barisano from France makes objects from shattered porcelain shards. The glaze in the mass acts like glue when heated.


Caroline Slotte removes the images from traditional plates, the landscape is still recognizable in the layers, but without color. For this exhibition, the Finnish artist was sent plates with nostalgic farm landscapes. The images were applied with photo transfers in which she recognized the pixels. To emphasize this, she applied a stencil full of holes, after which she sandblasted the signs. Small circles remained of the performance, although it now looks as if they were applied with a spray can.

An age-old technique for reusing broken ceramics is mosaic. Cleo Mussi from England made a special one Sustainable Ceramics #1 a portrait of the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. After a long search, Wendy Gers also found the young Rotterdam artist Thelma Boateng, who shared her work Fries Special “a contrast between the durability of mosaic and the fleeting consumption of this dish.”

In a ‘menu’ she shows what ingredients the simple fries are composed of and where they come from. From modified starch from Germany and rapeseed oil from France in the mayonnaise from Germany, to the Greek tomato sauce and Chinese flavoring in the curry.

Nipple vases

The museum itself also wants to work more sustainably. “We do want to make new purchases, but we have a collection consisting of 46,000 objects.” There are no photos of many of them and sometimes nothing is known about them. Artist and curator Neha Kudchadkar from Mumbai (India) researched the collection and chose a number of objects for her installation. “We have almost no goddesses or fertility statues. That is remarkable,” Gers explains.

Kudchadkar has therefore made three objects, containing impressions of her own nipple. Plus, little ones help nipple disks some vases to stand stably. In addition, Kudchadkar added three small objects to her installation from her family estate. “They are kitsch figurines that my grandfather used to sell to earn some extra money.”

In this way, she connects her own story (including a poem) to that of the museum, thereby raising questions about meaning and value. Her installation is an immediate invitation to share any knowledge about the anonymous objects with the museum. Gers: “By reactivating our collection, we also contribute to a more sustainable museum.”

Sustainable Ceramics #1 – Ceramics Museum Princessehof I Leeuwarden, Grote Kerkstraat 9, d it/m so 11 am – 5 pm, until November 3, 2024,