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An exploration of clay and ceramics in contemporary South African art practice



25.05.20 – 31.07.20



Text By Malibongwe Tyilo

SMAC Gallery is pleased to present Shaping Things, a group exhibition that explores the developing status of clay and ceramics in contemporary South African art. 

Unsurprisingly, the relationship between clay and creation is one of the longest relationships between material and the imagination. With the earliest known examples of the use of clay in ceremonial figurines dating back to 24 000 B.C., various cultures and societies have, over millennia, reached to what is perhaps the most accessible material, at first for functional reasons, and later, added the element of decoration and creative expression. Within the South African context, clay is perhaps most closely associated with traditional pottery, as demonstrated by the variety of vessels across different cultures. Other than for its functional purposes, the use of clay, especially in pottery, has long been perceived as a merely crafty past-time, far less cerebral than other mediums, like painting for example. However, much of the 20th century’s exploration of clay and ceramic art has resulted in steadily changing perceptions of the value of the medium. While there is no denying that material itself informs the form and content of an artwork, the current exploration of how clay can be used to explore contemporary subject matter is a reminder that long-held views for a material’s role in artistic practice may perhaps no longer be as relevant. How the material informs the end result has far more to do with the practitioner’s imagination and intention than the perceived limitation of the material. A look at some of the work that came out of South Africa in the latter half of the 20th century presents a far more nuanced conversation about the place of clay in art. Be it the delicate and eclectic balance in the work of Fée Halsted’s Ardmore studio, the adherence to traditional form of Nesta Nala’s pots or the far more decorative and consumable vessels from Louise Gelderblom’s studio. Ardmore studio especially is a good reminder of the way in which ceramic practice can incorporate other disciplines such as sculpture and painting. In contemporary 21st century exploration of clay, previous ceramic form and context moves further into the background, as artists use clay as another tool in their arsenal to explore subjects relevant to contemporary society. Take for example Ben Orkin’s glazed symmetrical silhouettes that explore the intimacy and tensions of queer relationships. At a distance, the unfamiliar shapes might resemble the vessels of old, but a closer look reveal them to stand out on their own, as new shapes. 

Jewellery designer Githan Coopo explores clay as adornment. His 2018 Byzantine collection looks to Greek mythology, ancient Egypt, varied religious iconography and found objects to sculpt ceramic earrings, intended for wearing rather than display. Besides the end use, what then separates his contemporary interpretation of the medium from works whose primary intention is to be displayed and contemplated as art pieces? Zizipho Poswa’s work on the other hand seems to straddle the space between the traditional and the contemporary. The shapes are reminiscent of the familiar vessels. In her work, she pays tribute to the women she grew up around, whose heads literally carried loads, sometimes actual vessels. In her work, their heads and hairstyles as well as the loads they carry are explored anew, in clay, as ceramics artworks themselves. In Marlene Steyn’s work, we see a much more organic approach; although the work is largely directed by the artist’s intention, the materiality of clay itself plays a huge role in the final result because of the way she works with it while it is still wet, allowing for gravity and the instability of clay to inform the final shape. Beyond the obviously sculptural expression of clay, artists like Simphiwe Buthelezi who bring clay into what would otherwise be more traditional flat surfaces, present a breakaway moment from what we would consider the traditional role of clay in art. As ceramic art practice continues to take shape in contemporary practice, the diversity of output is a reminder that the story of clay’s role in creation, even as old as it is, is far from defined, as contemporary art practitioners add new chapters and appreciation for the very soil that sustains us. 

Text By Malibongwe Tyilo

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