Tips To Smoking And Not Letting It Stick To Furniture Nesta Nala – Zulu Pottery

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Nesta Nala – Zulu Pottery

Nesta Nala (1940 – 2005) was an award-winning Zulu potter working in a traditional manner. Beginning as a child, she was taught how to make traditional Zulu beer pots from her mother Siphiwe. Although Nala continued to make beer pots in the traditional manner, her paper-thin, finely decorated forms won her international acclaim. Nala never married, preferring to support her family by making ceramics. She passed on her pottery making skills to three of her daughters, Jabu, Thembi and Zanele.

Nesta dug her own clay which she found near her home in South Africa. She ground the clay with a traditional Zulu grinding stone and sieved it through a fine sieve or piece of netting. It was then dried, put into a ten-gallon steel barrel with water and left to mature. When the clay was ready, it was wedged and rolled into balls.

Nala’s pots were hand-coiled and smoothed with a gourd shard or other smooth object. When the clay was leather-hard, it was burnished with river pebbles and then decorated with incised patterns or amansumpa (literally “warts” which is an ancient form of decoration in which bumps of clay are created either by sticking them on the piece or embossing them from inside). Nesta cut out the section of the pot to be decorated and then applied amansumpa which were attached with clay slip and smoothed into the surface with a pebble. Decoration was usually applied to the shoulder of the pot.

The term “leather-hard” refers to clay that has dried to the point where it can be handled without deforming, but still retains enough moisture to remain workable to a degree. It can be scratched, gouged and receive additions at this stage. The decoration on Nala’s work is said to be inspired by motifs on iron-age pot shards shown to her by a local archeologist. She often used figurative motifs of fish, shields, or houses which are seldom seen in Zulu ceramics. After the decoration is complete, pots were rubbed in animal fat, burnished and left to dry naturally.

Before firing, pieces of coal were put into the pots and warmed up to ensure that the pots were completely dry. They were then placed on their sides in a special arrangement and covered with dried grass, aloe leaves and stalks. The grass is then lit which also ignites the aloe fuel. Firings lasted approximately three hours depending on weather conditions. In a second firing, the pots are blackened. They are placed on a metal tripod and turned with a stick over the flames to ensure an even smoking. When thoroughly blackened, the pots are cooled, rubbed with more animal fat and polished to a shine.

Nala’s work always remained traditional in form, but was innovative in its decoration, which was a combination of inherited and invented motifs. In the mid 1980s, Nala made the transition from rural potter to art potter after being touted as a master ceramist in Rhoda Levinsohn’s Art and Craft in Southern Africa. Crafts editors encouraged Nesta to sign her wares and as museums, galleries and collectors acquired her work, she made the transition from curio producer to artist. Nala represented South Africa at the Cairo International Biennale for Ceramics in 1994, and won numerous other awards and honors. Her work is represented in most South African public collections as well as many private collections. During her lifetime, Nala was considered a South African living national treasure. Internationally, she is among the best known ceramists in the Zulu tradition.

Further reading:

Art and Craft in Southern Africa by Rhoda Levinsohn; IBSN 0908387342

Between Union and Liberation: Women Artists in South Africa 1910 – 1994 by Marion Arnold and Brenda Schmahmann; ISBN 0754632407

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