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.