The fine art of Zulu pottery

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Zulu pottery waiting to be discovered by enthusiasts.

Pottery is art, but not without argument.

American author and art historian Elizabeth Perrill adds to this debate in her recent book Zulu Pottery, bringing to the forefront an aesthetic culture familiar to Southern Africa.

Her book takes a more specific angle in the discussion of Zulu pottery. Rather than simply accrediting the artefacts as creative and expressive, Perrill sheds light on the artists behind them.

“Zulu ceramics have been collected and sold in South Africa and abroad as anonymous artifacts,” Perrill said.

“New acknowledgement of the artists is changing all that.”

Perrill first gained a master’s degree in art history from Indiana University in the United States, focusing on Zimbabwean stone sculptures.

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Zulu pottery being decorated in the traditional way.

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Then she decided to pursue her doctorate, specialising in Zulu ceramics.

She said working with the culture since 2002 has forever tied her to KwaZulu-Natal.

“I studied Zulu at the University of KwaZulu-Natal for two winter schools and had a Zulu language instructor in the US whom I studied with for four years,” Perrill said.

“This intensive language and cultural training helped me a great deal.”

The physical distance between the US and South Africa did not hinder Perrill and her work.

She said the lengthy trips actually helped her remain focused and submerged in her research.

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Art historian Elizabeth Perrill

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She has spent a total of 21 months travelling through KwaZulu-Natal, and that was just for her doctoral research. The final trip in March was the hardest.

“I was away from my family for so long,” Perrill said.

“When I left my daughter was just one year old, a baby, and when I returned she was a toddler.”

Discussing the benefits and challenges of writing about a distant place, Perrill acknowledged the gift of the modern age and the ability to communicate with collaborators from far-reaching locations.

She worked closely with publishers Print Matters to ensure every word and photograph of the book’s 106 pages communicated her intentions.

“I only agreed to take on the project when I learned that an anonymous South African donor was sponsoring distribution of the book to rural KwaZulu-Natal teachers,” she said.

“I want the general reader and the specialist alike to discover something new.”

Her pervasive goal becomes apparent in “Chapter 4: Foundational potters, foundational pieces”.

Here, Perrill illustrates the personal stories of a group of Zulu potters she refers to as the “founding mothers”.

Readers find the focus on contemporary ceramics highlighted by the long-established creative custom.

Featured women, such as Miriam Mbonambi, are recognised for pioneering traditional forms. Mbonambi’s pots were among the first collected as art rather than anthropological artefacts.

“Since the 1970s Zulu women have produced ceramics for urban markets,” Perrill said. “Now they can earn more and be acknowledged for their skill.”

Since Zulu Pottery was launched at the Cape Town Book Fair in June, Perrill has been contacted by American and European collectors looking to commission ceramic artists from rural SA.

“They pay amounts similar to those earned by ceramic artists in South African cities or in the US and Europe,” she said.

Monetary value is a superficial index in the deliberation of artistic quality, but in this case, the offerings are a good indication.

“A culture is a dynamic and living thing,” Perrill said.

“Recognition of Zulu pottery as an art form helps Zulu ceramicists to be proud of their cultural roots while developing identities as international artists.” - Weekend Argus

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