Mncane Nzuza – Master Zulu Potter
Traditional Zulu earthenware vessels of South Africa
Kwa-Zulu/ Natal, South Africa, 2017
CHICAGO, Feb 20, 2017 - Traditional Zulu beer vessels, ukhamba, are represented in many major museum and private collections. They are characterized by simple, usually globular shapes and a glossy jet-black surface. The surface decoration, abstract geometric designs in most cases, is either etched into the surface or applied. They are unique in the corpus of African ceramics in that they are usually without a rim/mouth or foot. However like many African ceramics they traditionally play a fundamental role in the spiritual life of the Zulu. Ancestor veneration is a principle tenet of Zulu religious belief. The blackened vessels are used to communally drink a weak sorghum-based beer in honor of the ancestors.
Several years ago David Roberts, an enterprising South African with a keen eye and respectful understanding of traditional Zulu art, spotted an exceptional Zulu pot while collecting in the field. He eventually traced it to its maker, Mncane Zinindeli Nzuza, a 67 year old woman living in a traditional kraal in a remote corner of Zululand. Over the next decade he traveled throughout Zululand and collected old pots of Mrs. Nzuza’s that had been purchased from her by other Zulu. The exhibition is comprised of these vessels.
Traditional Zulu pottery, like most pottery traditions in modern Africa, is in decline. Competition with cheap plastic and enamelware and the fragmentation of traditional culture through migration to urban centers fosters its demise. Few young women are interested in willingly assuming a life of very hard work, poverty and isolation by continuing the tradition of pottery making. In many cases the remaining living Zulu potters are the last of an historic tradition. Several Zulu potters, particularly the Nala family, have had success as contemporary artists. However this avenue is not open to most potters who continue to produce traditional vessels for local use.
Mrs. Nzuza’a vessels are exceptional within the corpus of traditional Zulu ceramics. Her mastery of crafting the vessel and innovative-yet-traditional surface treatment are, in this writer’s opinion, without equal among living Zulu potters. Mrs. Nzuza continues to make traditional beer vessels but she is the last of a long lineage of potters in her family.
This exhibition is the first this gallery has done of a living traditional artisan. The approximately twenty vessels were made within the last forty years. (Mrs. Nzuza began potting at age seventeen having learned the craft from her grandmother.) It is an honor to exhibit these vessels and the remarkable potter who made them.
Additional biographical information on Mrs. Nzuza and technical notes about her production methods as well as the history of pottery making among the Zulu are available upon request.
Mncana Nzuza: Master Zulu Potter
April 21 – June 10
Opening Reception: Friday, April 21, 5:30 - 7:30