I find it hard to talk about clay without verging on the poetic. Ceramics is a uniquely poetic medium. Clay is earth, after all. Claywork is earthwork. Ceramics is earthwork stylised.
Belinda Blignaut’s found and fired wild clay is probably the closest a ceramicist can get to messing with the earth without too much messing-it-up. These rich and textured vessels remind one instantly of the iron-rich mountains and rooibos-hued riverbeds from which the clay was sourced. Unbuffed, unpurified, and fired with no final form in mind, these works, entitled The Call from Things, let the earth speak for itself. As a result, they feel active, alive, as if the earth were still cracking, still sighing, still latent with yet-grown things. Scattered at the foot of their pedestals are more foragings: sprigs of imphepho, driftwood, moss-costumed branches, dust in various acts of red. The installation becomes altar, honouring the sublime achievements which occur each day, just under our noses.
Kathy Robins charts a similar course in Elements, with dishes that look more found than crafted, sat low to the ground on reclaimed wood and adorned with bouquets of tumbleweeds. Martine Jackson’s terracotta sculptures are more contrived, but nevertheless mimic earth’s shades, its movements, its moods.
Simphiwe Buthelezi smears earth like paint over a straw mat, evoking the ritual of prayer. Lay the mat down, lay down the body, turn the gaze inward, return to what grounds. The subject is what grounds, not the one who prays. What souls, prayers, dreams, metaphors, and memories are present when peeling icansi up from wet earth? Frame that.
Buthelezi draws our attention to something important: clay remembers. Not just because earth remembers: the more you work clay, the more it remembers, the less malleable it becomes. Claywork is earthwork is memory-work, which becomes all the more pertinent for artists who engage ceramics in its traditional forms. Zizipho Poswa puts traditional pottery on its head, as the dark-polished base typical of ukhamba erupts into vibrant, almost-mythic forms. Named after women in the artist’s family and inspired by their hairstyles, Poswa invokes experimentation in her ancestry at the same time she pushes boundaries of her own.
Approaching memory-work from a different angle, Stephané Conradie sees porcelain figurines, teacups, and other bric-a-brac found in South African working-class homes as receptors-of-sorts. How these commonplace – and some might say kitsch – objects come to be embedded with meaning has everything to do with histories of displacement. They are nostalgic in the face of erasure. Against currents of instability, they remain fixed. In a culture of disposability – and a capitalist, colonial world renders everything disposable: objects, land, people – they make totems out of the mundane. Far more than decoration, Conradie points to ceramics as material culture against forgetting.
That being said, ceramics can also be used as a tool of erasure, like how blue-and-white ware has come to be associated with European design despite its centuries-long traditions in China and the Middle East. Gretchen Crots subverts this tendency to obscure by employing the same technique in a roast against the colonists. A teapot which sees a tearful Jan Van Riebeek reads, Jan se blues het begin tow hy in… A plate which at first seems to commemorate sail ships in Table Bay is branded, ‘THANKS A LOT ASSHOLES!!! HUMANS WEREN’T SHIT THEN – STILL AIN’T SHIT NOW!’
Crots’s blend of humour and critique is mirrored by Githan Coopoo’s take on the Grecian urn. Eschewing the parade of muscled men’s bodies—which have anyway been de-eroticised by western art discourse—Coopoo’s piece announces plainly: ‘WE’RE ALL SO GAY.’ Then there is his sweet, sardonic jockstrap ashtray, gloriously subtitled, My father thinks my work looks too much like Hylton’s. Hylton Nel’s Dog on Stump squats nearby, its pink tongue sticking teasingly out, as if to say, ‘Who cares?‘
There seems to be something about ceramics which lends itself to playful attitudes. Cases in point: Frances Goodman’s cheeky disembodied lips; Geena Wilkinson’s to-scale choice assorted biscuits; Gabrielle Kruger’s sculptures which look to me like Sesame Street characters or something Elton John might wear; Katharien de Villier’s latest object study in ‘whatthefuckisthis’? In these works there is a lightheartedness – which is not to say a naivety – that refreshes. If claywork is an act of re-shaping the world, then works like these remind me there is no best way to do so, but a plurality of entrances, a growing stock of possibilities.
I like the way M.C. Richards puts it in her book, Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person:
How do we perform the CRAFT of life, kraft, potentia? Potentia, like so many other words, has had its meanings separated out, and has come, in our day, to be both potency and potentiality—that is to say, both the power present and the power latent, that can but has not yet come into being. In latin these are the same word. And this is a wisdom. For the potentiality is also a present power with which we must deal and to which we must speak. A condition of generative potency, a possibility in persons and things, not yet visible in force but present in seed.
More so than a comprehensive appraisal of South African ceramics, Shaping Things showcases a ceramics in potentia: still finding its way, as yet to come into being. Perhaps, rather than follow art history’s linear economy, South African ceramics will adhere to earth-logic: an unfinished alchemy. As above, so below.