/ 27 January 2023

Heads up: Artist is firing up a ceramic storm

Ziziphoposwa Portrait 2022 Cr.haydenphipps&sguild.02copy
Crowning glory: Zizipho Poswa with two of her massive ceramic vessels in progress. Photo: Hayden Phipps and Southern Guild

‘I wanted to know what it felt like to wear these hairstyles from other times’

‘I’m just a vessel,” says Zizipho Poswa, modestly, responding to a question regarding the popularity of her work.

As an artist and designer focused on creating ceramic vessels, it is an apt metaphor. It has further significance in light of her recent exhibition uBuhle boKhokho (Beauty of Our Ancestors) at the Southern Guild gallery in Cape Town, which features large-scale vessels that more or less represent the human body, given they each are receptacles for a hairdo from different eras and countries on the African continent.

 In essence, this exhibition is a celebration of African hairstyles, the artistry, patterns and designs inherent in their creation and how they have accentuated the beauty of black women over time and across countries. There are 12 sculptures inspired by ornate hairdos from countries such as Cameroon, Nigeria, Gabon and Zimbabwe. 

They are presented alongside large-scale photographs of Poswa with some of the hairstyles she has interpreted in clay. These are glossy images that could be enlarged versions of fashion magazine covers, given how immaculate Poswa appears. 

She is a beautiful woman, driving home the link between beauty and elaborate hairdos, which appear almost like crowns. This regal undercurrent comes into focus in an image where her upper body is encrusted with gold leaves. 

This isn’t a narcissistic gesture, despite the maker’s international status. Poswa’s rise to success has been rapid since her work debuted in 2018 at Southern Guild’s booth at Design Miami, one of the most celebrated international design fairs. 

Her distinctive ceramic works have struck a chord internationally. US museums have been acquiring her work and she has become one of Southern Guild’s most prominent artists. There are waiting lists for her works, which come with a dazzling price tag.  

Yet there is no air of a diva-in-the-making when I meet with her at her Woodstock studio. It’s the last working week in December, so the studio is quieter than usual. Only two members of the team she shares with Andile Dyalvane are toiling away, presumably on smaller, more commercial works that they sell under the Imiso Ceramics brand founded by the duo in 2005. She is softly spoken, slightly retiring.  

Given she is fresh off the plane from the United States after attending the Design Miami and other art fairs that take place in that city in early December, her shyness might simply be a consequence of exhaustion. It was her first visit to the event that put her on the map and provided an opportunity to connect with the collectors that Southern Guild has been cultivating in the US.

“It was crazy. People were so excited [about the works]. I realised when I got there that they knew the work already. Not just through social media but because my work had already been shown (in Miami) before. I would have been in Miami earlier if it had not been for Covid.”

One of the collectors she was excited to meet was the legendary American fashion designer Donna Karan, who bought two of her works last year. Poswa was also thrilled to learn that Mark Shuttleworth, the South African entrepreneur, acquired an artwork.  

She looks nothing like the woman in the slick photographs from her exhibition. For starters, she isn’t parading one of the elaborate hairdos — “I took them off immediately after the shoot. I wouldn’t be able to sleep with them on,” she observes. 

In reality, the sculptural hairdos that inspire her work can only be worn for a short time, due to their scale and construction.

Transforming these impermanent, almost living, structures into sculptures, which freezes them in time and gives them the permanence that normally would escape them, has been a motivating factor for the series, suggests Poswa. 

She wanted to wear each of the hairdos and experience their “power”, so to speak, firsthand before turning them into clay sculptures.

“I wanted to know what it felt like to wear these hairstyles from other times,” she says. 

Symbolically, this activity allowed her to embody the history and the line of women that came before. On an aesthetic level, it allowed her to come to grips with the formal qualities of the hairstyles, reading them almost from the inside out. 

The photographic turn to her practice is new and, in the context of the exhibition, works at linking the body to the abstract vessels that are dotted around the gallery. 

Hair has been a recurring theme in her art, since the Magodi series, in which she referenced, among other hairstyles, the Bantu knot. 

Having worked as a model for a hair extension company back in the day propelled her interest in the representation of hairstyles. The company no longer exists but the images of Poswa advertising its products remain in circulation at salons. 

Poswa couldn’t resist stopping in at one such place and pointing out that she was the model and showing the hairdressers images of the works she has gone on to create. 

“Part of what I am doing is to honour the work that they do.”

Another important influence driving this body of work and the Magodi series is linked to the fact that one of her studio assistants is a trained hairdresser. Samantha Mushamba, who is credited at the exhibition for her contribution, started out doing Poswa’s hair and nails before working at her studio, in an administrative capacity. When Poswa cooked up the approach for uBuhle boKhokho (Beauty of Our Ancestors), it made sense to ask Mushamba to assist.

“I threw her in the deep end. She made some of the pieces at home at night and we would install them the next day and do the shoot. It was an intense process. She’s very creative. We would find the hairstyle we wanted to do together and imagine how it would look in clay form. It was a beautiful challenge for her too,” says Poswa. 

While the silhouettes of these hairstyles are recognisable in the sculptural translations of them, at first glance they read as abstract compositions. This has always been part of the charm of Poswa’s work but also reflects her practice as a designer — design is often not figurative and more concerned with formal qualities. 

There is perhaps a blurry line between the ceramic objects made and created for Imiso Ceramics and the grander, large-scale creations she produces for gallery audiences, in the sense that you can detect some of the aesthetic characteristics — the bold and earthy colours and tones, the shapes of the vessels. 

However, it is not just the scale that separates some of the more utilitarian objects under the Imiso brand from the ones she exhibits in galleries and fairs that defines them as art objects, but the intent behind them. 

Up until recently, perhaps prior to ceramic art being more readily regarded as art, Poswa has mostly been regarded as a designer rather than an artist. 

Growing up in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, she didn’t harbour ambitions to be part of the art world — she didn’t encounter art or artists. She was inspired by the designs she encountered, such as plastic kitchen-table covers. This ubiquitous textile surprisingly piqued her interest from a young age, eventually prompting her to study textile design in Port Elizabeth. 

“I knew that I could apply this knowledge to mediums other than textiles. The designs you come up with can be applied to any surface. 

“I knew I was going to work with clay but I didn’t envision it happening so soon.”

After moving to Cape Town with Dyalvane (a ceramic artist she met at university) Poswa worked for textile designer Carole Nevin, until a space became available at the newly renovated Biscuit Mill development in Woodstock. Dyalvane and others, who had long dreamt of establishing a design hub, where a group of young designers working with different materials could share space, ideas and clients, signed a lease and occupied the space. 

“We had almost no money to start the business. We needed to open the doors straight away to pay the first rent,” she recalls. 

They got to work immediately, opting to work with clay and, as the adage goes, “they never looked back”.

 Over the years, they established the Imiso brand and, a little later, creating collectible designs became an obvious extension due to supplying Source, a design business started by Trevyn and Julian McGowan, who would later establish the Southern Guild gallery. 

Photo: Hayden Phipps and Southern Guild

Making collectible design works that pushed the definition of art required more time to develop. Poswa took care of the commercial interests of Imiso Ceramics while Dyalvane made a foray into this new territory. Once they had a stronger team in place, Poswa segued into making more intentional objects.

“I started out with pinch bowls and people were buying them. But there was not much of a story attached to them. When I started focusing on my identity and authentically telling my story through the things I made I was able to produce [different kinds of works],” she explains. 

The common thematic thread uniting Poswa’s sculptures and collectible ceramic works is a focus on women. She has depicted the physical labour they are often burdened with — her first series showed women in rural contexts engaged in “umthwalo” (load), carrying heavy bundles of wood, buckets of water or parcels on their heads. 

She represented ilobola (the exchange of goods or money between a groom and bride’s families) via a series of vessels adorned with bronze-cast horns referencing the cows that were traditionally used in the bargaining process.  

Her reverence for women, as the unsung heroes of society, originates from her deep gratitude and admiration for her late mother. 

“I was raised by a single mom. She didn’t just raise me but my cousins as well; I’m an only child. There were almost 10 of us at some point. She was a teacher; she could have just said she would only raise me but she took us all on and as well as many people in the community.” 

She agrees that her large-scale vessels could be perceived as monuments to women and adds that one of her ambitions is to create a bona fide public sculpture recognising black women.  

Poswa might not find time for it this year. She has a string of exciting projects lined up, which include a commission to create a new work for a group exhibition in Venice, for which she has been given carte blanche in terms of scale. 

There are some international residencies lined up. One in Mexico will see her and her entire studio (including Dyalvane) relocate to that country for its duration. 

She is particularly excited about a residency at a university in Los Angeles where she will have access to a kiln that is far larger than the one in her studio.

“Their kilns are larger than the size of a room. I am really excited about scaling up my work there,” says Poswa, casting her eyes at the modest-sized kiln that sits at the centre of her split-level Woodstock studio. 

Given what emerged from her kiln last year, all eyes will be on these new works where spatial limits won’t stand in her way. uBuhle boKhokho (Beauty of Our Ancestors) is showing at the Southern Guild gallery in Cape Town until 31 January.