November 2, 2019 – January 4, 2020
Saturday, November 9, 2019, from 7:00 – 9:00pm
Vessels From the Far Away KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa Travel to Modern Desert Venue for Exhibition at Lisa Sette Gallery in Phoenix, Arizona
It is difficult to conceive of two more disparate situations; a sophisticated, urban, contemporary art gallery in Phoenix, Arizona and a traditional compound of earthen structures at the end of a road in a remote corner of KwaZulu-Natal province, South Africa. Surprisingly, however, these two contrasting circumstances of life on earth are closely linked by the common, intrinsically human impulse of aesthetic appreciation. In this case, regarding the hand-built clay vessels of Zulu potter Mncane Nzuza, whose work is both distinguished among her Zulu culture, and widely recognized in contemporary Western circles. From November 2, 2019 to January 4, 2020, Lisa Sette Gallery will exhibit a collection of Nzuza’s remarkable clay vessels.
Mncane Nzuza lives in South Africa in a kraal—the ancient, traditional compound of round, earthen houses, and she is 69 years old. Her grandmother was a potter who instructed Nzuza as a child in the labor-intensive and matriarchal world of Zulu ceramics. Traditional Zulu pottery created today links to deep cultural pathways: the blackened earthenware vessels function as potent connectors between ancestors and the living. Most are made for either brewing or serving a mild beer, which is communally consumed at important occasions. While Zulu potters work within this specific canon, there is considerable avenue for individual expression, and creating distinguished pottery is a primary vehicle for women to assert and increase prestige within Zulu society. Nzuza’s pots, which are exceptionally accomplished both technically and aesthetically, are a testament to this dynamic.
Rimless and burnished to a deep hue, Nzuza’s vessels seem to have been inflated from within, not laboriously built by slab and coil. To anyone familiar with hand-building a pot, they are astonishing. The surface patterns of hundreds of tiny balls of clay, each individually applied, present vestigial remnants of ancient skin scarification traditions.
The appreciation of Nzuza’s remarkable vessels by contemporary Western audiences taps several recent currents in Western art. The Arts and Craft movement of the late 19th, early 20th centuries created a vocabulary of appreciation for technique, material, and function, and Minimalism, which formalized the estimation of pure form, unencumbered by superfluous decoration.
Nzuza’s vessels are created upon a formal foundation based on ancient Zulu traditions, which in most cases is unknown to contemporary Western viewers, yet her pots transcend that gap, remaining profoundly moving even separated from their cultural context. Their simple, inflated forms are subtle and understated, yet incredibly dynamic. These vessels don’t terminate in defined “necks,” but rather present an ambiguous opening—an oculus defining space. Their bodies are velvety dark, with a patina of use implying other histories and other lives. Like the opening, the foot is not announced but rather remains suggestive and utterly integral to the body above. Lastly, the surface treatment—the interlocking loops, arcs, and necklaces of hundreds of tiny clay nubs—are never bombastic, always just right. This is Nzuza’s genius, recognizable from South Africa to Arizona.