Guide to South African Pottery
  1. T+L
  2. South Africa

Guide to South African Pottery

Dook Artist Shirley Fintz in Cape Town with one of her sculptures.
South African pottery is breaking traditions-and catching the attention of curators and collectors worldwide. Here, where to shop and what to buy in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and beyond.

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.

Nesta Nala

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.

Ian Garrett

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).

Majolandile Dyalvane

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.

Barbara Jackson

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).

More from T+L
 
Advertisement
Advertisement