The invented collective African artist

In a recent issue of Art South Africa, Achille Mbembe articulates on the factors constraining contemporary African culture. Among those factors, he identifies ‘The conflation of African art, culture and aesthetics with ethnicity or community or communalism’:

The dominant but false idea – shared by many Africans and many donors – is that the act of creativity is necessarily a collective act; that African artistic forms are not aesthetic objects per se but ciphers of a deeper level of the ‘real’ that is fundamentally ethnographic and expressive of Africa’s ontological cultural difference of ‘authenticity’. It is this African ‘difference’ and this African ‘authenticity’ donors are keen to find, support and, if necessary, invent.

Achille Mbembe ‘Art and Development’ Art South Africa 8/3 2010 pp.70-74

African pottery in South Africa: Life after the village by Steven Smith

Beauty Ntshalintshali and Mavis Shabalala (2009). Guineafowl Tureen,  29 x 35 x 28cm. Masterpiece Collection: Ardmore Ceramics. Photo used with permission.

Beauty Ntshalintshali and Mavis Shabalala (2009). Guineafowl Tureen, 29 x 35 x 28cm. Masterpiece Collection: Ardmore Ceramics. Photo used with permission.

I agree with Bickford Berzock & Frank that ‘it is clear that today the market for African ceramics is outpacing scholarship. Published research on African ceramics is highly idiosyncratic and uneven in depth and cultural representation. Only a few traditions have been the focus of in-depth study by multiple researchers offering complementary perspectives’ (Bickford Berzock & Frank, 2007). Notwithstanding the lack of scholarly research, here I discuss the question of whether African ceramics is harboured or hindered by European industry, influence and appetite and its impact on village and studio practice.

The largest pottery studio in South Africa, Ardmore Ceramics, is an interesting case. It was founded by white South African artist, Fèe Halsted after she had trained a disabled black South African, Bonnie Ntshalintshali, and discovered a powerful dynamic in combining European and African craft traditions. By ingenuity, by thrift and by chance, Halsted developed the style that has made Ardmore Ceramics internationally renowned (Ardmore Ceramics, 2010). Not quite African nor European in neither aesthetic nor sensibility. Intricately decorated ware in a Western ceramic tradition, the work is brightly coloured and the forms unique, featuring flora and animal motifs with almost mythological figurines in fantasy narratives. The only thing African about them is perhaps the subject matter, the style of modelling and colouring. They seem to evoke a familiar African aesthetic, however they do not have a sense of traditional tribal pottery, the work more resembling narrative-based wood carvings of Malawi and Zimbabwe. Ardmore pottery would be most comfortable in an upmarket home, office or gallery; the concept is technologically European with an African aesthetic spin and justifiably heavy price tags. In 2008 eight Ardmore pieces fetched over GB£20,000 at Bonhams in London (Prendini Toffoli, 2008). The Ardmore website currently has a set of candlesticks for GB£7,500. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve coveted Ardmore Ceramics for years but have never quite had the funds to shell out for one. They are a fabulous example of co-creative practice. Each piece is made in stages of construction, sculpting and painting by different artists to produce a shared outcome.

The influence of the European drive for production and saleability might be a strong influence in the style evolution of the potters’ wares.

It seems that the successful African potters are for the most part discovered then engineered into greatness by Europeans. Without European business entrepreneurship these potters would, it seems have continued in their craft serving their communities. Their craft would then have remained in its pure, traditional and primarily functional form.

Ardmore is in stark contrast to traditional craft pottery of the African village. With the latter, clay is dug by hand, dried and ground like grain, hand built by coiling and burnished. Then wood or smoke fired in aloe leaves as the first firing and a final firing in umTomboti wood – toxic while burning, its oils stain pots a deep lustrous black. The pots are finally glossed up with animal fat.

The now internationally renowned Nesta Nala from the Tugela Ferry area of Zululand worked exclusively in that tradition. Nala was the foremost potter who brought Zulu pottery onto the world stage. She passed on her skills to her daughters and at her death in 2005 many in South Africa considered her a national treasure. She represented South Africa at the Cairo International Biennale for ceramics in 1994, received South Africa’s prestigious Vita award for craft in 1995, in 1999 participated in the Smithsonian Institute’s Folk Life Project in Washington. Her work is represented in major collections in South Africa and worldwide (Ceramics Today, circa 2001). Her pottery was traditional in the true sense – functional pots used in everyday Zulu tribal life and prized by the local rural community for its beauty. Considering the rudimentary equipment and method, her work is startling, exhibiting purity of form, perfect proportion and embellished with exquisitely simple reliefs. While much of her decoration style was in the Zulu geometric patterning tradition, she later experimented with fish and other motifs. Hints of European influence are found in her later pieces where she was encouraged to sign and date her work – a very unAfrican practice. Nala’s promotion and exposure at the Association of Potters of Southern Africa and Corobrik National Ceramics Exhibitions of the 90’s generated interest in traditional Zulu pottery. Had Nala not been discovered and catapulted onto the world art stage, her work would have remained in rural obscurity. Although world-renowned she remained a rurally based, traditional village potter until her death, never crossing the divide to a studio tradition. She left her legacy in the Nala family of potters and paved the way for other Zulu potters like the Magwaza family and the noteworthy Clive Sithole.

Clive Sithole is an exception—a true studio potter who studied traditional techniques under Nesta Nala. Heavily influenced by Nala, his works feature traditional Zulu form with added sculptural elements and a more Western style pit-firing. His work is considered a new development in the history of the craft. Successfully positioning his pot-making as an art form, he developed a style that incorporates bovine reliefs from the Zulu tradition of young boys making clay bulls (Van Wyk, 2010). His pots fuse the form and functionality of Nala’s and his own decorative style. While there are other examples, one hopes Clive Sithole heralds the future of African potters – creative practice unfettered by European influence yet relevant on the world art scene.

Bernard Zondo and Zinhle Nene (2009). Porcupine Tureen detail, 29 x 27 x 20cm. Masterpiece Collection: Ardmore Ceramics. Photo used with permission.

Bernard Zondo and Zinhle Nene (2009). Porcupine Tureen detail, 29 x 27 x 20cm. Masterpiece Collection: Ardmore Ceramics. Photo used with permission.

The end-use of African ceramics is fascinating and requires more research. Where the potter creates traditional ware, it is functionally useful to Africans as everyday or special occasion ware. The very same piece in the hands of Europeans becomes an art piece separated from its context and devoid of its utilitarian function yet prized for its beauty and market value. African Art Centre in Durban assists craft producers to sell their ware to collectors, interior decorators and particularly tourists. The high-end work is earmarked for galleries and collectors and the remainder is generally relegated to tourist curios. An unsurprising phenomenon is the plethora of studios of previously disadvantaged potters industriously churning out Africanesque pottery for Western consumption. Far worse is white South Africans churning out Western ceramics decorated in a kitsch quasi-African style. This is unduly harsh criticism of black craft studios as tourist patronage keeps bread on the table of these craftspeople who otherwise have no source of income.

The success of traditional pottery seems inextricably linked to Europeans; either as facilitators or business leaders on the one hand or the purchasers on the other. This symbiotic relationship has the drawback of the best artefacts ending up overseas, however the benefit is increased interest and trade in pottery (even from the tourism sector) allowing potters to develop and refine their practice and supports more people in the community learning the craft, ironically ensuring its survival as a tradition. At this juncture whether an African potter is studio-based or works traditionally does not seem to affect their fortunes, only that they are discovered and promoted. It is likely that as more potters like Clive Sithole come up through the ranks, African pottery will organically develop its own aesthetic and become increasingly self-assured. And that which is created in studios will influence the village potter.


Steven Smith is a Lecturer in Advertising Design at the Institute of Communication Design, Massey University, New Zealand.  Steven has been a practicing studio potter in South Africa for over twenty years and has a keen interest in Zulu culture and craft, especially pottery.

African Craft: the Ghetto of the Village, the Penthouse of the Studio by Pamela Allara

Lestina Malatjie and Calvin Machlawaule, (Kaross Collective), Community, 1999. Embroidery on black cloth, 60 x 115 cm. Collection: Johannesburg Art Gallery

Lestina Malatjie and Calvin Machlawaule, (Kaross Collective), Community, 1999. Embroidery on black cloth, 60 x 115 cm. Collection: Johannesburg Art Gallery

Lestina Malatjie and Calvin Machlawaule, (Kaross Collective), Community, 1999. Embroidery on black cloth, 60 x 115 cm. Collection: Johannesburg Art Gallery

Shortly after the newly democratic ANC-led government of South Africa was installed in 1994, it issued a White Paper that announced a policy of using the arts for the purpose of social transformation and reconciliation. The paper asserted that “experiencing the creative expression of different communities of South Africa provides insights into the aspirations and values of our nation. This experience develops tolerance and provides a foundation for national reconciliation.” One outcome of this policy should have been to bridge the gap between art and craft in South African cultural property. Unfortunately, because government support for ‘craft’ was predicated on its ability to alleviate poverty– “to contribute significantly to the economy of the country by…creating employment,” its effect has been to maintain the hierarchical distinction between art and craft by reinforcing the divide between the aesthetic and the practical and between the rural and urban. The Department of Arts and Culture’s motto: “Design Feeds the Poor,” could hardly be expected to resonate with an international art market now free, after the lifting of sanctions, to scour the county for the next hot art star. Both the government and the museum/gallery system are driven by monetary concerns, but with radically different goals. In the end, one could argue that the gap between art and craft in the new South Africa is a reflection of the bottomless chasm between rich and poor.

When I first went to South Africa in 2000, I was exhilarated by the art world’s rethinking of the traditional categories of what constituted art. Universities were hurriedly revamping art history courses to include ‘traditional’ arts, and museums were not only purchasing the work of black painters, sculptors and printmakers, they were displaying both traditional and contemporary crafts along with the ‘high’ arts of painting and sculpture. The legacy of 19th century concepts of what constituted art and art history was quietly being buried, or so it seemed. For over a century, the avant-garde had advocated the destruction of the very idea of ‘high’ art, whereas the history of art was narrowly confined to the study of traditional media. In South Africa in 2000, it appeared as if the internal contradiction within modernism was going to be resolved in favor of the avant-garde. From the perspective of this newcomer, the history of art was being reconceived as the history of cultural production, and the former hierarchies among media were being leveled.

In 2003, in the exhibition, “Coexistence: Contemporary Cultural Production in South Africa,” that I co-curated with the former Director of the South African National Gallery, Marilyn Martin, we included the work of rural needlework collectives along with that of university-trained artists working in cities in South Africa or abroad. Our aim was to bridge not only the rural/urban//craft/art divide but also the gender divide. The needlework collectives had been established for the most part by white women artists who had identified traditional craft skills as a means of income generation. Among the most successful was and remains the Kaross collective in Limpopo Province. Founded by Irma van Rooyen in 1988, it employs over 600 people today, the vast majority of whom are women. (B. Schmahmann in the exhibition catalog). Even if the role of these white founders might be considered a form of colonialism, it anticipated government policy and moreover has given disadvantaged women new status in their communities, answering the call of the ANC Women’s League “for the right to fashion feminism to suit their own worlds.” I will use the example of a stunning embroidered cloth to illustrate the complexities of the art/craft divide in the South African context post-1994.

Community (1999) is a subtle interweaving of voices—a textile in the truest sense of the word. The cloth was commissioned by the National Paper Prayers Campaign for AIDS Awareness (1998-2000), initiated by artist Kim Berman and administered through Artist Proof Studio. In collaboration with AIDS educators, the Studio members went to community centers in all of South Africa’s nine provinces to help address trauma and loss through the process of making a print as a prayer for healing. During its second year, the program expanded to three needlework collectives, each of which produced large-scale hangings—a sort of surrogate painting– that could serve either to inform the local populace if hung in a community center or as a collectible art work to raise funds for treatment programs. Like a storybook, Community visually narrates the story of the impact of AIDS on a rural village. As drawn by Calvin Machlawaule, who is HIV positive, and then embroidered by Lestina Malatjie, it emphasizes the tragic consequences of denial and stigma in the era of AIDS.

Clearly the cloth is a hybrid in more ways than one. At the Kaross collective, the women’s needlework skills had been transferred from creating clothing for personal use to making place mats and tablecloths for the tourist trade. Once the government-funded Paper Prayers program provided a tool for AIDS awareness, the resulting narrative cloths had a powerful content that transcended both its educational purpose and its ‘craft’ designation. Signed by the embroiderer, Malatjie, in order to satisfy the predominantly white collectors’ expectations of authorship, it was exhibited at the Vita Craft Awards, where it won a top prize and was purchased by the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Neither the format of the wall hanging nor its content was the result of Malatjie’s individual inspiration, however. The work, as its title indicates, was the collaborative effort of several of the participants in the training, as overseen by the artists and educators. And despite the exceptional quality of the work, Malatjie has not emerged as a recognized craft-artist. As for Community itself, it remains in storage at JAG, its status as ‘art’ in limbo.

Of course, ‘community’ is the problem. In South Africa, ‘high’ art is still thought of as the product of an individual sensibility, despite every effort to rethink categories to be more reflective of the values of a democratic nation. The fact that the needlework collectives consist predominantly of women has only contributed further to locking the art/craft hierarchy more firmly into place. Until very recently, ‘high’ art, as defined in western terms, was considered a male-only realm within the majority black culture. Although this is rapidly changing, the continuing rural/urban divide—men in the city, women in the countryside– also contributes to maintaining the status quo.

The situation results in an impoverished picture of South African art, as exemplified by the recent publication, South African Art Now, authored by artist Sue Williamson and produced by HarperCollins in the U.S. In this broad survey, the craft traditions are acknowledged only in terms of individual practitioners employing handwork skills to make ‘art.’ The important work of the embroidery or pottery collectives receives no mention at all. Of course, in the United States, one rarely finds publications on community-based art or artists’ collectives; monographic studies of individual artists still predominate. Although it is hardly surprising that HarperCollins, owned by the conservative propagandist Rupert Murdoch, followed this established hierarchy, the book does distort the South African picture, in my opinion.

The arts will never be able to adequately contribute to social transformation and reconciliation in South Africa until the art/craft divide is finally and firmly bridged. The country has faced and surmounted far greater challenges, so the cause is far from lost.

Pamela Allara is Associate Professor emerita, Contemporary Art and Visual Culture, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, USA