cape reviews

Fired: An exhibition of South African ceramics

Various Artists at Iziko William Fehr Collection at the Castle of Good Hope

By Elizabeth Perrill
26 February - 13 August. 0 Comment(s)
Fired, exhibition view

Fired, exhibition view, 2012. ceramics various.

Looking ahead to Cape Town’s 2014 status as the World’s Design Capital one hopes that recent history will remind the cultural sector of how easy it is to create white elephants by ignoring long-term planning. Attempting to contextualise and historicise South Africa’s place in the design world is one way to take the long view, and this is where ‘Fired’ at the Castle of Good Hope enters the frame.

Esther Esmyol and her team at Iziko Museums opened ‘Fired’ this February and it will remain in place throughout the 2014 Design Capital events. ‘Fired’ takes advantage of the new Iziko structure, which merged over half a dozen museums into a single administrative entity. This ceramic historical retrospective draws upon the previously separate collections from the South African Museum’s Archaeological and Anthropological holdings, South African Cultural History Museum, William Fehr Collection, and South African National Gallery (SANG), all of which except the SANG now fall under Iziko’s newly-formed Social History Collections Department. Ceramics collected over a century are on view and will hopefully temper the intensity of the commercial wildfire that is bound to flare up during 2014.

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South Africa’s ceramics are already a hot commodity in international circles. Christie’s holds an annual auction selling Ardmore ceramics. Hylton Nel continues to hold his own at Stevenson. Andile Dylavane’s incised work and Imiso Ceramics’ hip pinch pots recently appeared on the Sundance Channel’s series Man Shops Globe. Design firm West Elm is producing utilitarian ceramics designed by Swellendam artist John Newdigate. The Amaridian Gallery in SoHo, New York, regularly features work by Zulu ceramists from the Nala and Magwaza families; Clive Sithole’s Zulu-inspired forms; incised and burnished pots by Ian Garrett; and the sensuous botanical work of Astrid Dahl. This is all in addition to a thriving domestic market. Amidst this commercial interest one hopes students and buyers will take time to see the historical underpinnings of South African ceramics, and ‘Fired’ makes a good start.

The connected vaults of the Castle of Good Hope Granary allow one a moment to reflect on the traditions that inspire today’s successful contemporary ceramists. A perhaps overly wide-ranging, but thorough timeline welcomes visitors. Beginning with Venus figures produced in 31,000 BCE in today’s Czech Republic, and ending with an almost exclusively South African-focused 20th-21st century section, this didactic label sets the tone for the exhibition. Thematic and loosely chronological groupings guide the viewer through a variety of cultural and technological topics.

Storage Vessels; Archaeological Fragments; Works of Khoesan Origin; Vessels for Drinking, Serving and Making Beer; Ceramic Journeys; Inspired by Ancestors; Production Pottery; Studio Ceramics – themes in the first multi-chambered room cover a vast range of vessel types and historical contexts. The simultaneous presence of Khoisan, linguistically Bantu-speaking peoples, European, and Asian traditions of ceramics are interwoven in the exhibition space. Those viewers unfamiliar with the technologies that allow artists to turn clay into utilitarian and decorative ceramics should read the exhibition labels in this first room. Likewise, spending a few minutes watching the cycle of videos featuring both rural and urban ceramic methods will increase appreciation for this artistic medium.

From the perspective of a ceramic specialist, the thematic breakdown of the exhibition’s first room takes some bold risks on one hand and a few 'easy-outs' on the other. The indigenous traditions of ceramics made for beer drinking are well represented, but the case featuring contemporary vessels inspired by, but not necessarily used for beer are done a disservice. A crowded display case and lack of information make it seem as if these works are part of a continuous lineage. Pots created in the 1960s for serving beer are seen beside contemporary vessels by artists Nala, Clive Sithole and Sbonelo Luthuli, who all make inherently post-modern statements. Each of these artists reflect on the conundrum of working as ceramists in KwaZulu-Natal who draw on, but are not bound by the tradition of Zulu ceramic beer vessels – a complexity that is glossed over.

A thematic grouping of plates, bowls, and tiles and associated label entitled ‘Ceramic Journeys’ is more successful in its historical contextualization of the early globalisation of ceramic trade. Seventeenth and eighteenth century export porcelains depicting Table Mountain are a particular highlight in this group of imported ceramics from China and Japan – tying South African colonial legacies to global ceramic history. A contemporary tile by Ellalou O’Meara playfully interacts with the historical works and is a credit to the conversations Esmyol creates between historical and contemporary ceramics throughout the exhibition.

Esmyol was also assisted by several consulting researchers, creating a narrative that backs up some controversial curatorial choices. The history of ‘Production Potteries’, described as enterprises that created 'lines' of ceramic wares, are discussed as entities that bolstered white South African employment during Apartheid. In a similarly politically-framed reference, the anti-Apartheid sentiments of many Studio Potters -small groups or individuals creating unique works or small 'lines' - are highlighted. The political and technical background provided lends strength to the curatorial decision to group ‘Anglo-Oriental ceramics’ with pieces by the Rorke’s Drift Arts and Crafts Centre. The similarities in subdued glaze palettes, high-fired clay, and even similar political dispositions warrant Esmyol’s comparisons of the largely white Anglo-Oriental followers with the black artists of Rorke’s Drift.

The second multi-chambered room of ‘Fired’ features an array of work described in a wall text as ‘Contemporary Ceramics’. This space is organised loosely according to ceramic medium or technique: terracottas, porcelains, burnished wares, design-oriented multi-colored work, and ‘Afro-baroque’ confections. The array is impressive and the perfect springboard for anticipated Design Capital event attendees to venture out and connect South African ceramics to a deeper historical narrative.

The most recent work of artists represented in ‘Fired’, together with the new work by up-and-coming artists will undoubtedly have transformed the contemporary ceramic landscape by 2014. Thankfully, it is not the job of a social history museum curator to follow each micro-trend, but to see the links across the larger sweep of time. Esmyol and her team accomplish this task most admirably. Documentation of the exhibition will hopefully appear soon in a catalogue. One can also hope that Iziko’s budgets are maintained at a level that allows the accession of more contemporary treasures before they are snapped-up by the international marketplace.  

Elizabeth Perrill is an Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, U.S.A. Perrill’s research on Zulu and contemporary ceramics in South Africa began in 2003. Her new book, Zulu Pottery, will be released in South Africa in June 2012.