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More than meets the eye Back
More than meets the eye
30 April, 2017

In the Zulu culture of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal region, a clay pot is no ordinary vessel. Traditionally made by the women in the community, the pot making is an art form passed from mother to daughter. Revealing an elegant simplicity and unique handmade patterning and decoration (traditionally based on the family and region) the Zulu pot has today entered the world of handcrafted collectibles.

At the heart of daily life, the various styles and sizes of the Zulu pot performed three main functions. The bigger imbiza pot was used for brewing beer, the ukhamba pot for serving it and the umancishana pot size was used for cooking meat, storing grain or water and drinking sour milk.  

The type of clay used in making the pots is known as ibumba. It is dug out of the ground and left to dry in the sun, then ground in a mortar and passed through a sieve to remove stones. The ukhamba pot is made of the dried fine clay, but the bigger pots are mixed together with other clays ensuring they are more solid. The women mix the clay with water to form a ball, working on the ground with a ring of dried grass so that they can turn the pot as they work and as the pot grows in size. Long sausage shaped lengths of clay are coiled around each other to form the base and then the sides of the pot. The pot is smoothed out and decorated with intricate designs. A pattern of raised bumps known as amasumpa is the most common decorative technique.

The pots are left in the sun to dry for several days and then fired in open fire pits of dried cactus leaves or grass. After firing, the surface of the pot is rubbed with animal fat or wax polish and a polishing pebble. To achieve a glossy black finish – for ritualistic purposes, as the ancestors are said to hide in dark, shady places – the women combine sifted soot and a special leaf ash in the polish.

In traditional culture, the ukhamba or calabash is placed on a grass mat in the centre of the space and everyone comes together to share the thick alcoholic beer, made from fermented millet and known as tswala. Participants drink from a small gourd, dipped into the beer, and small sips are savoured, with any leftover beer being given to the eldest (and wisest!) members of the group. A small lid made of grass is sometimes placed over the top of the bowl to keep insects out.

Describing the ukhamba – the most widely known pot in the contemporary repertoire of Zulu beer vessels – Elizabeth Perril writes in her 2008 book, Ukucwebezala: To Shine, that “As a group drinking vessel, the ukhamba … carries connotations of communality and sociability. The passing of an ukhamba from person to person is at the heart of what it can mean to drink utshwala (sorghum beer), emphasizing the interconnectedness of humanity. This idea is also expressed in the saying ‘Umuntu, ngumuntu, ngabantu', ‘A person is a person (or human being) because of (other) people’.”

An objet d’art, yes, and a beautiful collector’s item, but the Zulu pot is so much more. Each vessel tells a story, and each bears the signature of an artist who creates not only as a reflection of their own identity, but in the time-honoured tradition of those who have gone before. This vessel is a symbol of a unique sense of community, of bringing people together, and a reminder that – like these intricately designed artworks – we all are formed from the earth and share a deep sense of belonging in that.

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