African vessels inspire contemporary artists

20 November 2014


Some of the ceramic vessels on show at the Slave Lodge. (Image: Iziko Museums )

When you think of ceramics, the fine porcelain of China, the English sensibility of Royal Doulton or the distinctive blue and white Delft come to mind. Working with Ceramics SA Western Cape, Iziko Museums of South Africa is throwing another picture during November, which has been named Ceramics Month by the potters’ group.

For an exhibition at Cape Town’s Slave Lodge, called From African Earth: Celebrating our African Clay Vessel Heritage, Iziko has brought out of storage many of its fine vessels from various parts of Africa, including pots from ancient Egypt, middle and east Africa. This selection of historical hand-built, pit-fired African vessels from the Iziko permanent collection is juxtaposed with a selection of contemporary vessels created in the same genre by ceramic artists who are members of Ceramics Southern Africa.

Alongside the exhibition, the South African Post Office’s philately division has launched a new stamp series, unveiled by division head Johan van Wyk on 13 November at the opening of the exhibition, featuring ceramic vessels from Iziko’s collection. The works on these stamps are incorporated in the exhibition, which is a registered World Design Capital (WDC) project.

Esther Esmyol, the curator of social history collections at Iziko Museums, explains that the idea for Celebrating our African Clay Vessel Heritage started in conversations with Ralph Johnson, the head of Ceramics SA Western Cape. “We thought it was important to have an African component to the month, to inspire Africa potters to look at their African roots and work in that genre [rather than only follow the influences of Asian and European potters].”

SAPO stamp

The new South African Post Office stamp series. (Image: Iziko Museum)

Iziko also has a WDC project, called Igniting Collections, to forge links between the audience and its artefacts. “There is not much in the WDC projects that looks at Africa, so we took pottery from our collections from other parts of Africa – including Egypt, which is often rather placed with the Middle East – to show our African heritage.”

There is also a contemporary component to the exhibition. “This was an opportunity to show our historical pots, and show the smoke-fired tradition of pot-making in Africa, and for contemporary artists to work with and be inspired by their roots. At the same time, about two-and-a-half years ago, we began working with the South African Post Office on a stamp series. The vessels were not yet decided as the theme; this came as the exhibition grew. Not all the vessels included in the stamps are pit or smoke-fired, but they are all in our collections.”

The vessels in the exhibition were coiled, hand-thrown or made on a wheel, but were all fired with smoke, in the traditional African way.

Professor Magdalene Odundo OBE, professor of ceramics at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, United Kingdom, opened the exhibition as a guest of Ceramics Southern Africa. Kenyan born Odundo is an international ceramics expert.

“Clay is one of the few mediums that has a long history – as old as man,” she said. “It is mentioned in the Bible: man is formed from clay. It is a material that has created lots of objects – both historical and archaeological – that inform who we are as human beings. I am not sure we would have museums without ceramics. The first items that tell us who we are, are ceramics. Clay is where we come from and where we go. We dig holes to consume us, and to find things,” she said. “I am very passionate about clay. It consumes me – it is in everything.”

The Iziko collection was “an amazing collection. Work here is found nowhere else in African museums”. Odundo also praised the juxtaposition of the contemporary work with the old pieces.

From African Earth: Celebrating our African Clay Vessel Heritage is on at the Iziko Slave Lodge, on the corner of Wale and Adderley streets in Cape Town, until 31 January 2015.

Lorraine Kearney