For nearly two decades, South African ceramicist and designer Zizipho Poswa has been carving ancient stories in ceramics. She’s frequently relied on clay, but she experiments with other unusual material too, like bronze. The objects she crafts are often large; they flow from a rich tapestry of her heritage.
Born in Mthatha, a small town in Eastern Cape, Poswa attributes her love of art to her mother, who saw her interest in it from a young age and gave her the liberty to explore it. “She nurtured my creativity,” she said on a recent Zoom call. “She would allow me to draw on the walls and curate when her friends came.”
While in college, she studied textile design, a course she saw as an opportunity to explore her curiosity about art. The class put her on track to working in the design and textile industry. After working in that sector for a year, she turned her work in a more conceptual direction, working with her business partner Andile Dyalvane and five others she knew from school. Slowly and imaginatively, they built a story that birthed other stories.
Poswa’s work has a delicateness to it: with a very contemplative intuition, her works illustrate the glamor of ancestral stories. Her work draws on mysticism, rituals, religion, and her Xhosa ancestry. In her latest exhibition, “uBuhle boKhokho” (Beauty of Our Ancestors) at Cape Town’s Southern Guild gallery, Poswa showed clay and bronze sculptures that seemed to merge African hairstyles with traditional vessel forms. Twenty monumental ceramics were shown alongside a photographic series capturing the artist’s creation of 12 hairstyles, in an attempt, she said, to bring a sense of visual comfort to the ever-expanding field of Black art.
Just before her Southern Guild show ended earlier this month, ARTnews spoke with Poswa about how she began making ceramics and how she keeps her culture alive.
ARTnews: Tell me about your background as an artist.
Zizipho Poswa: I was born and raised in Mthatha, a small town in Eastern Cape. Growing up, I did normal schooling without any art education because there were no art schools here. I was also a very creative child because I was surrounded with a lot of flowers. My mother was a collector of beautiful interior design magazines. She was also a teacher.
To me, art was something really special. I have always been an artist, even before it became a career.
When did you begin your journey as a full-time artist?
When I finished my matric, I decided to find an art school in the university, and I realized that they were looking for a portfolio, but I didn’t have any solid work for what I could consider a portfolio. I was sent to a college [for an] introduction to art, and for a year I was exposed to art disciplines like textiles, ceramics, and painting. For me, it was the most exciting time. I really thought I would study graphic design because that was the closest thing I knew about, but then, during my foundation course, I realized there was more to it than just drawing, which I loved, and I fell in love with textile design. I loved ceramics, but I had to major in one discipline. I had to choose surface design because I was drawn to color and patterns. I always knew my love for clay was there, and I knew it was something I would explore at some point in my life.
After my studies, I moved to Cape Town, where I worked in the textile industry. I worked for a company that specialized in hand paintings. I enjoyed learning and creating, but it was kind of limiting because they had specific designs that they did. I wanted to create my own line and this didn’t allow me to do that. I also worked in another design studio, where we designed bed linens. I had a year of working experience, then I met my business partner Andile. We initially studied together at the university. He majored in ceramics while I majored in textile design. Our idea was to do a design hub where we could create textiles, graphics and all, but we ended up starting with clay, which became very successful and we didn’t have the time for others.
We were actually a group of five. We had all studied together, and all we had was the skill. We would create, and people would come in, appreciate, and buy. We were lucky to be in a space that also attracted tourists.
Why was telling the stories of your culture very important to you as an artist?
For the first 10 years, I was making smaller works. The pieces were colorful and focused more on my textile background, though I was working with clay. It was beautiful to make a one-of-a-kind piece, and it was deeply appreciated. We have a production space and a gallery in one. We make work and it gets exhibited in the gallery so people can come and see the process as well.
In 2017, the Southern Guild invited me to a group show, “Extra Ordinary.” After the show, I [asked myself] what I wanted to be known for. I wanted to be true to myself and celebrate who I am and my culture. I wanted to honor my community, especially the women who had raised me, their power and resilience. I wanted to acknowledge them and the amazing work they were doing.
In your solo debut at Southern Guild Gallery in 2021, you exhibited the “iLobola.” Tell me about it?
The “iLobola” are a celebration of our culture and heritage in regard to weddings. There is no wedding without “iLobola.” In my culture, when two families meet over a union, the groom is said to pay a number of agreed cows to the family of the bride. The reason why I did that is because nowadays people don’t take them seriously anymore, though there is so much beauty in it—but only when you educate yourself about it. So, I was talking to my mother and my uncle and asking them how it was done before, because it’s now in monetary value instead of the cows being given. I felt like people missed the concept and how it was made, and I had to look within my culture to see what I could celebrate.
I really enjoyed making those [works] because the process was so great. There were 12 ceramic pieces, and it was the first time I was working with bronze. While working, I realized that using clay to make the horns would make them fragile, so that’s when bronze came in. Bronze is a beautiful material. I’m happy to have worked on it in clay form.
Your work makes use of geometric shapes, which can appear abstract, even though you’re referring to specific things. What is your interest in form?
Form is like my way of drawing what I’m trying to picture. There is more power in complementing forms with textures and than with colors. The forms are the base of what I do best. With the “Umthwalo” series in 2019, people weren’t able to see that it dealt with the woman carrying the load. I feel like people can read the forms more easily and that’s why I’m attracted to it. It’s kind of my language.
What inspired your most recent Southern Guild show, “Ubule boKhokho?”
“Ubule” speaks to the beauty and “boKhokho” is the ancestors, so its title means “beauty of our ancestors.” The exhibition acknowledges our ancestors and the amount of heritage that they have left behind. It also celebrates the women in my life and the women I have met along the way. My aim was to preserve the beauty for the next generation, I wanted it to be in a space where our great-great-great-grandchildren will be able to see it. I also had the chance to explore through archives and see the work of the late Nigerian artist Okhai Ojeikere, who has the biggest archives of traditional history and has had his works exhibited throughout Europe. I was looking for different hairstyles from different regions in Africa, from the Ubuntu North to the Fulani and others.
In the exhibition, you relied heavily on black tones. Why did you choose to do this?
When I envisioned this project, it came to me as color. I wanted to celebrate the power of black hair. Because my works are usually quite colorful, I had to challenge myself at the same time to be very intentional about the color. Sticking to black was something I knew would make the work so vibrant. Also, it would blend easily with the different shades of bronze. I enjoyed that so much, and I’m looking forward to experimenting with more materials like glass and wood. I’m still thinking about those.
Why did you decide to also include photography in this exhibition?
The idea of the photo series came to me when I was researching online. During the research on specific hairstyles, I felt like I needed to experience the power of the pieces myself in order to create the ceramic work. I made about 12 series of images, but because some of them were quite big, we weren’t able to exhibit everything in the gallery. Now, thinking about it, a lot of people appreciated the work and told me they would love to see more, so I’m going to continue making more photography that would follow the ceramic forms.
What has the general response been to the show?
It’s been incredibly amazing. My community was there. I had my family from the Eastern Cape travel to come and see the work because they had not experienced my art, so it was important for me that they got to see the magnitude of the work itself and see how people responded to the work. For the first time, we had over 500 people in the gallery. There was no space, and I love that everyone surrounded the work in a beautiful way. I had so much love that I cannot even explain it. It made me so happy.