Traditional zulu ceramics

Traditional zulu ceramics

The history of traditional Zulu ceramics is not perfectly understood.   Until the middle of the 19th century basketry was probably the principle type of container used by the Zulu including containers for liquids.  Archaeological shards discovered in areas currently occupied by the Zulu suggest that pottery making is ancient but few shards of blackened vessels – now considered ‘classic’ Zulu ceramics – have been discovered.  As Zulu culture evolved from basically a pastoral one to one of large concentrations of permanent settlements the need for durable vessels fostered pottery making. By the end of the 19th century the tradition of blackened ( reduction-fired ) vessels was well established. Photos of the Zulu court taken near the turn of the 19th century show many well -made large beer vessels (ukhamba) on display.
 
Zulu vessels are made of earthenware clay; an iron-rich clay that matures at a relatively low temperature.   Most traditional ceramics the world over are made of earthenware.   Firing earthenware does not require a kiln.  Pots can be fired in the open with readably available fuel. In the case of contemporary Zulu potters this fuel is often the dried leaves of giant aloe plants. Firing is rapid and dramatic and requires great skill to ‘read’ the smoke and flames.
 
Zulu pottery, traditionally the craft of women, is hand-built rather than thrown on a potter’s wheel. The superb balance and perfect symmetry of many Zulu vessels is only possible by years – and generations – of potting.  In general the making of Zulu pots is very low-tech and very high skill.
 
The clay is dug by hand from a suitable site – often a considerable distance from the potter’s home. It is dried, ground into a fine powder and cleaned of any organic material, stones, or other impurities.  Following this very laborious process it is mixed with water to the appropriate consistency and often aged.  Each potter has a distinct ‘hand’ that may reflect slight differences in the process of making the vessel. Generally the process involves building up the walls of the vessel by adding thick coils of clay, one atop each other, blending them together, and smoothing the surface which may include scrapping the interior to thin the walls.  When the pot is partially dry – about leather-hard – the potter will decorate the surface with appliqué designs ( amasumpa) or etched fine-line patterns.  After all decoration is finished the outer surface is polished with a smooth stone or metal tool.  This compresses the clay molecules and produces a hard, shiny, durable surface.  After carefully drying the pot it is fired.   If it is to have a blackened surface it is fired twice; once in an oxidation firing that results in a red surface and once in a reduction firing that darkens the surface. The later involves introducing an excess of fuel during the firing in which case the necessary oxygen required for combustion is drawn from the clay rather that the atmosphere. Iron turns black in such a firing.
 
Several different types of vessels were made to supply the traditional market.  Not all women were potters.  Many supplied vessels upon commission or sold their wares in regional markets.  Blackened vessels were reserved for ceremonial use whereas red vessels were utilitarian.   This exhibition contains mostly ukhamba – vessels used for the ceremonial serving of beer in honor of ancestors and other special ceremonies.  There is also one example of an izimbiza – the very large reddish vessel used for brewing the beer.  Several of the huge, pumpkin-shaped vessels in this exhibition were commissioned for weddings.  The thinness of the walls, the symmetry of the forms and the sheer size of each vessel are remarkable among contemporary Zulu wares.
 
We first began collection Nzuza’s vessels approximately ten years ago without knowing, at that time, that they were made by her.   All the pots were purchased from other Zulu households that had purchased them from Nzuza in the past.  Later, after identifying Nzuza as the maker, her daughter became instrumental in finding old pots that her mother had made.  David Roberts, a Durban- based South African with a deep knowledge of Zulu culture, was the first to systematically seek out and collect Nzuza’s pottery with the assistance of Nzuza’s daughter and a Zulu colleague.  In this process he became a close and trusted friend of Nzuza.  We visited Nzuza in her remote traditional kraal in January of 2017 where we were welcomed warmly and enthusiastically.  This is the first comprehensive exhibition of her work.   A portion of the proceeds of sales from this exhibition will be given to Nzuza or an institution she favors.
 
 
Further Reading:
 
Jolles, Frank. Zulu Beer Vessels.  Kranj: Gorenjski  tisk storitve,2015
 
Perrill, Elizabeth. Zulu Pottery. San Michael: Print Matters, 2012
 
Zaloumis, Alex. Zulu Tribal Art. Cape Town: AmaZulu Publishers, 2000