Axis Gallery, New York
October 18 – December 24, 2002
“Vessel” focuses on antique ceremonial Zulu pottery, together with other vessels from southern Africa. It includes works by contemporary master ceramists Clive Sithole, Ntombe Nala, Thembi Nala, and Nesta Nala, who has won numerous awards for her internationally acclaimed work.
Zulu pots, made for the ritualized brewing and consumption of sorghum beer, are spiritual vessels, linked to the ancestors who govern all fertility. Pots are decorated, blackened, and burnished to please the spirits. Undecorated brewing pots are especially sacred because fermentation is a metaphor of conception.
Symbolic designs include raised bumps that recall women’s scarifications, linking the earthen vessels with women’s bodies. Motifs also symbolize cattle, which were the focus of traditional Zulu life and ceremonial sacrifices.
African art from this region is epitomized by the elegant, minimalist forms and subtle decorative rhythms of these vessels.
About the Artists
Clive Sitholeattended the London International School of fashion design in Johannesburg, Gauteng and established a fashion business. In 1986 he met and was inspired by Philemon Lerata of the Pietermaritzburg University’s Ceramics Department. In 1997 he moved to Durban and joined the Babumbi Clay Project, where his prominence led to an invitation to attend ceramic classes in the university department. He developed a passion for traditional Zulu ceramics and firing techniques, which form the basis for his innovative ceramics.
Thembi Nala was taught by her grandmother, Siphiwe, and by her mother, Nesta Nala. Aged 12, she began sculpting guinea fowl birds in clay. Later her mother taught her to make pots in the traditional Zulu way. As South African art museums and galleries began to recognize virtuoso ceramics, Thembi Nala established a career in her own right. She decorates vessels with low-relief figures and scenes, but also makes pots of classic Zulu form and decoration.
Nesta Nala has been creating clay beer pots in the traditional Zulu was all her life. She was taught by her mother, Siphiwe, and has developed an international reputation for her classical forms and finely finished beer pots.
Nesta digs her clays, one red and the other gray, close to her home. She grinds clay with a traditional Zulu grinding-stone, and sieves it through a fine sieve or a piece of netting. It is then dried and put into a ten-gallon steel barrel with 50% water. After maturing, the clay is wedged and rolled into balls. Traditional pots are hand-coiled and then smoothed with a calabash fragment or old spoon. When leather-hard, they are burnished with river pebbles and then decorated with incised patterns or added “warts” of clay in an ancient design called amansumpa. Nesta cuts out the section of the pot to be decorated and then applies soft “warts” of clay, which are inserted with a clay slip and smoothed into the surface with a pebble. The pots are left to dry naturally. Before firing, pieces of coal are put into the pots and warmed up to ensure that the pots are completely dry. They are then placed on their sides in a special arrangement and covered with dried grass, aloe leaves, and stalks. The grass is then lit, and it ignites the aloe fuel. Firing lasts approximately three hours, depending on weather conditions. In a second firing, the pots are blackened. They are placed on a metal tripod and turned with a stick over the flames to ensure an even smoking. When thoroughly blackened, the pots are cooled, rubbed with animal fat, and brushed to a shine.