After decades of toiling in obscurity, South African potters have made it to the world's stage. During the apartheid era, cultural boycotts forced artists here to work in isolation, often without the technical expertise and tools available in other countries. Yet such constraints also fueled new talent—freed from a formal pottery tradition, South African ceramists began pushing the boundaries. Zulu artist Nesta Nala transformed conventional, rough-hewn, traditional pots into sleek, decorative objets that would put even a Dane to shame. In the rural foothills of the Drakensberg mountains in KwaZulu-Natal, potters at the Ardmore Ceramic Art Studio began twisting utilitarian forms into fanciful, brightly colored pieces. Since the 1994 elections, which elevated Nelson Mandela to the presidency, the country's ceramics scene has continued to flourish—and is now gaining the recognition it deserves. Galleries and museums from London to Taipei are displaying the work of contemporary artists such as Nala, Barbara Jackson, and Kim Sacks. Still, the true energy of South African pottery lies in the galleries back home. The tight-knit scene remains powered by individual gallery owners who act as mentors, raise awareness of emerging artists, and attract sponsorship for exhibitions of new talent. On the following pages, five of the country's top galleries and studios.
Kim Sacks Gallery, Johannesburg
Although embroidered wall hangings and intricate African beadwork adorn the walls at this Joburg space, the real star is Kim Sacks's stellar collection of ceramics, ranging from traditional terra-cotta Zulu "beer pots" by Nesta Nala to contemporary vases by the country's top porcelain artist, Katherine Glenday. A potter herself, Sacks studied at the Danish School of Design in Copenhagen before returning home in 1986, determined to raise the profile of South African artists; she established both the gallery and a ceramics school in the Johannesburg suburb of Bellevue. Most of South Africa's best ceramists were either trained by Sacks or are now represented by her.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR Sacks's own work: small porcelain bowls in 15 shades of white, created by mixing sand into the clay surface. Also keep an eye out for Hennie Meyer's fantastical teapots and Christo Giles's richly glazed ceramic bowls and plates. Prices can be steep, but these pieces are still a good value: a small Nesta Nala pot sells for $606. 153 Jan Smuts Ave., Parkwood, Johannesburg; 27-11/447-5804.
Africa Nova, Cape Town
Tucked among the trendy shops and bustling restaurants of Cape Town's De Waterkant shopping district, this jewel box of a store brims with beadwork, fabrics, wood carvings, and some of South Africa's finest ceramics. "Most galleries display pieces in a clinical white space, but very few homes are like that," notes Zimbabwean owner Margie Robertson. "Instead, we aim to contextualize the artwork." To that end, Robertson might place a circular woven basket next to a ceramic bowl by Marge Wallace that echoes the shape of the basket; position a voluptuous clay vessel by Barbara Jackson beside a bulging gourd; or pair a boldly patterned Dogon shield with a similarly exuberant piece by ceramist Kendal Warren.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR Perfectly round pots (from $425) by Ian Garrett, whose pared-down pieces draw from traditional shapes such as Zulu beer storage vessels; Shirley Fintz's popular ceramic sculptures, which play on South African cultural icons in provocative and humorous ways ($1,213); and South African Margy Malan's crockery ($91–$455), painted with nostalgic African imagery. Cape Quarter, 72 Waterkant St., Green Point, Cape Town; 27-21/425-5123.
Clementina Ceramics & A.R.T. Gallery, Cape Town
In the late eighties, artist Clementina van der Walt began adding designs based on West African textiles and South African urban landscapes to teacups, bowls, and saucers, creating a line of brightly decorated tableware. Her widely popular signature pieces gave rise to this bare-bones Cape Town gallery, which remains the source for South Africa's most innovative housewares. Lately van der Walt has turned her attention to one-off pieces, many of which have found their way into London galleries. She still creates utilitarian items,but her work is now embellished with simpler motifs, such as a solid red stripe or a striking line of raised dots.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR Lisa Firer's paper-por-celain candleholders ($83); Sarah Walters's smooth, smoke-fired bowls ($68); Helen Vaughan's tall, conelike candlesticks ($150); or a "dancing" teapot by Hennie Meyer ($135). Also seek out Gerhard Swart and Anthony Harris's white slip-cast pots ($75). 20 Main Rd., Kalk Bay, Cape Town; 27-21/788-8718; www.clementina.co.za.
Potter's Shop, Cape Town
Chris Silverston started small in 1986, selling pottery supplies and offering advice to fellow artists. Her Cape Town studio soon acquired a reputation for sustaining new talent. It's now a gallery devoted to pieces by the Potter's Workshop, a collective of potters working under Silverston's direction. Using a slip-cast method that relies on limited-time reusable m\orkshop produces hand-painted tableware that draws collectors from diverse locales such as Ghana and Washington, D.C. Silverston's emphasis on function as well as form ensures that each piece is microwave- and food-safe as well as uniquely (and beautifully) designed. "But we're quite primitive, really," she insists. "We're not a factory—there's a handmade element that characterizes our work."
WHAT TO LOOK FOR Fancifully painted bowls, plates, cups, and saucers from the workshop's potters: Fezile Ntshofu's sushi plates and fruit bowls, with their intricate geometric patterns (from $24); Sibongile Siboma's cereal bowls sporting stylized animal figures. Don't miss Majolandile Dyalvane's hand-built vases festooned with cowrie shells, or his platters decorated with imprints made from netting and fabric ($273–$606). 6 Rouxville Rd., Kalk Bay, Cape Town; 27-21/788-7030.
Ardmore Ceramic Art Studio, Caversham
A collective of 70 rural potters from a distant farming region of KwaZulu-Natal, Ardmore is famed for its detailed, highly imaginative (even naïve) ceramics, such as one piece depicting an angel riding on the back of a whale or a platter decorated with lions, giraffes, monkeys, birds, and flowers. In the style of English studio potteries, Ardmore employs "makers" and "painters" who work together to produce a single piece. Though the studio is remote—about an hour-and-a-half drive from Durban—Ardmore's coveted work can also be found in urban galleries, including Africa Nova and the Potter's Shop in Cape Town.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR Decorative jugs with animal heads extending from the handles; wonderful clay candelabra in the shape of four monkeys astride a plump zebra; and more metaphor- ical work, such as Zeblon Brilliant Msele's 1997 piece Solomon—a tableau of King Solomon, rhinos, and winged giraffes carved into a candlestick. Prices start at an average of $150 for good-quality pieces. Caversham; 27-33/234-4869; www.ardmoreceramics.co.za.
GILLIAN CULLINAN is a freelance journalist based in South Africa.
South African potters are doing such exceptional work at the moment that it's difficult to highlight only a few. But if you're looking to collect, these are the artists to keep your eye on.
The most revered of the traditional South African potters, Zulu artist Nala digs her own clay and builds her famously pristine black pots by smoothing coils of clay into shape (forsaking the potter's wheel), then baking the pieces in a kiln or on an open fire. Such vessels were originally used for storing beer and in ceremonies, but Nala's pots have a timeless quality that allows them to fit into any interior as decorative works. Find them at Kim Sacks Gallery.
Garrett's double-burnished pots (hand-built by stacking clay, a technique he gleaned from an apprenticeship with Nesta Nala) retain the form of traditional Zulu pots but incorporate intricate surface decoration and a glossy glaze. With his work now moving in a new direction—toward porcelain—those classic burnished pots will be ever more difficult to come by. Find them now at Africa Nova, Clementina Ceramics, and Kim Sacks Gallery, or make an appointment to visit his studio in Swellendam along the Western Cape's Garden Route (call 27-28/514-3282 for appointments).
A member of the Potter's Workshop in Cape Town, Dyalvane often reinterprets functional artifacts like the beer pots of his native Xhosa culture. His superbly finished work—tall vases inspired by wooden milk pails; hand-built pots and platters—is now finding critical success; one piece is exhibited at the South African National Gallery. Lately he has branched out to a range of frosted-porcelain hanging lights. Look for Dyalvane's work at Kim Sacks Gallery, Africa Nova, the Potter's Shop, and Clementina Ceramics.
Self-taught Jackson is one of South Africa's most accomplished ceramists, renowned for her curvaceous, hand-built earthenware pots decorated with bold dots, stripes, and geometric patterns; her work is in several public collections, including Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts. Find it in Cape Town at Africa Nova and Monkeybiz gallery (43 Rose St., Bo-Kaap; 27-21/426-0145; www.monkeybiz.co.za), or in New York at Carrol Boyes (118 Prince St.; 212/334-3556; www.carrolboyes.co.za).