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Ceramics: The Nala Potting Dynasty

The Nala Family [South Africa]

Nesta Nala - Zulu Beer Pot

[Image sources: Traditional Zulu Pot, Nesta Nala via Eugene Hon]

In the 1980’s Yvonne Chaka Chaka was singing about brewing African beer in the timeless infectious hit Umqombothi, a song that was and still is a regular feature at weddings and parties across Southern Africa and beyond. I remember the accompanying video, one of celebration and saw women carrying their brews in a traditional clay pot. Whether expertly balanced atop the head having been filled with water from the river, or as a vessel fermenting the ‘African Beer’, the bulbous clay pot is an enduring symbol of cultural tradition across the African continent, one that sees potters and ceramicists continue to produce the beautifully rounded and still functional vessels with great skill. Admired for its beauty, decoration and shape, traditional clay pot making is increasingly being revered as an art form, producing a number of noted artists who are taking the skill to a higher level; amongst them the Nala Family from South Africa; three generations of traditional Zulu clay pot-making, whose finely crafted pieces are made in the Thukela Valley, KwaZulu Natal and have earned the family of female potters local and international acclaim.

Wider recognition of the family’s skill and talent started with Nesta Nala, who was credited with reviving the Zulu beer pot tradition, known as ‘Ukhamba’ and during her lifetime was bestowed many awards and was revered as a ‘living national treasure’. Nesta began making pots at the age of twelve, a craft she learnt from her mother, Siphiwe, an acclaimed local potter who made beer pots for local domestic use. Nesta in turn passed the tradition down to her daughters Jabu, Thembi and Zanele, each of whom following in their mother’s footsteps has developed her own distinctive style based on the traditional techniques of hand-coiling the clay which is then smoothed and burnished with river pebbles once it becomes leather hard. Traditional motifs as well as new styles are incorporated; the decorative patterns are either cut into the pots surface or added directly onto the surface in an ancient design technique called Amasumpha, which involves additional bits of clay applied to form a raised pattern. The pots are then fired twice, the second time giving the pots their characteristic black colour. Once cooled the pots are then rubbed with animal fat and brushed to a glossy shine.

Jabu Nala - Ceramic Pot
Zanele Nala - Pot

[Image sources: Traditional Zulu Pots; top, Jabu Nala via Witness
bottom, Zanele Nala via Eugene Hon]

Setting themselves apart from most local potters, the Nala’s began to sign their work, something that was rarely, if ever practised and shows the shift that comes with competing in a world that values collectible works of art. Also setting the family’s work apart are the differences in sizes, quality of finish and decoration; defining characteristics that highlight the perfection of a tradition through the generations; and ones that have seen their creations included in several permanent collections across South Africa, as well as becoming locally and internationally sought after by collectors. 

Thembi Nala - Clay Pot

[Image source: Traditional Zulu Pot, Thembi Nala via Nkosi Imported Crafts]

The level of detailing in the patterns gives the pots greater sophistication and elegance, which are simply stunning.

…it’s Mother’s Day this Sunday in the UK and this post is a reminder of a Mother’s continuing influence across the generations

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