NESTA NALA (1940 - 2005)

A PROCESS AS SIGNIFICANT AS THE VESSEL ITSELF

Nesta Nala

CERAMICS BY TRADITION

By David Mann

The Nalas are integral to the story of South African ceramics. With a technique that spans 100 years, theirs is a name that’s deeply interwoven with the Zulu ceramic tradition. Specifically, it is their work with Zulu ceramic pots (ukhamba) that has seen Nala ceramics come to be included in galleries and museums the world over.

‘The work of the Nalas is rooted in an ancient and revered ceramic process. 

Nesta Nala, Burnished Ceramic Vessel, 1994, 31cm x 29cm

The Nala ceramic tradition was popularised by the famed ceramicist Nesta Nala, whose work has been exhibited, studied and documented locally and globally. It’s a process that can be traced back to the early 1900s, when Nesta’s paternal grandmother Ntombi Khumalo taught her daughter, Siphiwe, the art of ceramics. Siphiwe would then pass these skills onto Nesta, who would teach five of her own daughters the art form. Of these daughters, Thembi and Jabulile Nala would go on to make their careers in ceramics, with Jabulile continuing to exhibit and sell to this day. Arguably, it is the work of Nesta and Jabulile Nala in particular that has had the most enduring influence on South African ceramics.

‘Rooted in an ancient and revered ceramic process, Nesta’s method of hand built, pit-fired and burnished vessels is equal parts considered and disciplined, onerous and ornate.’

Jabulile Nala
Jabulile Nala, Burnished Ceramic Vessel, Image Courtesy of Jabulile Nala

The work of the Nalas is rooted in an ancient and revered ceramic process. Nesta’s method of hand built, pit-fired and burnished vessels is equal parts considered and disciplined, onerous and ornate. To begin, she would gather two types of clay (red and grey), typically hand-dug from the areas around her home. The clay was then ground and sieved before being dried and placed into a steel barrel with water. Once matured, the clay was used to form hand-coiled pots, smoothed and dried before being burnished and decorated with small beads of clay (amasumpa). Dried grass and aloe leaves covered the pots, serving as fuel for the pit-firing process. In a second firing, the pots were blackened, giving them their distinctive colouring. Finally, the pots were polished to a shine using animal fat. 

Ceramic Vessels by Nesta and Jabulile Nala
Nala Vessels waiting for firing, Image Courtesy of Jabulile Nala

The resultant vessels are manifold in form and function. Aesthetically, the Nala pots are instantly recognisable. They are broad, rounded forms that hold a certain dichotomy in their façade – a smooth, buffed surface shot through with profound, striking bands of patterned, geometric activity and gesture. Traditionally used for the consumption of home-brewed beer, they are also spiritually and culturally significant items. In this way, the Nala pots refuse neat observation or engagement. They are venerable and substantial objects – each one a showpiece – but charged with a collective essence and bearing, owed to a process that is as significant as the vessel itself.

‘They are venerable and substantial objects – each one a showpiece – but charged with a collective essence and bearing, owed to a process that is as significant as the vessel itself.’

Nesta Nala Vessel
Nesta Nala, Burnished Ceramic Vessel.

While critics, artists and academics came from around the world to research Nesta’s technique, very rarely did she reap the financial benefits of her work. For Jabulile, the process and its resultant forms serve as an enduring connection to her late mother. Stylistically, too, there is a resonance in their way with minimalism, punctuated with delicate, decorative rhythms. Unlike her mother, though, Jabulile is active in the selling of her work. She avoids journalists, academics and most gallerists, wary of their potentially exploitative practices. These days, she navigates the international markets, selling directly to buyers as often as possible. 

The Nala technique, formed generations prior and passed down through years of observation and instruction, hasn’t changed at all. Although Johannesburg-based, Jabulile still orders her clay in from the same areas her mother would gather it. She has, however, branched out in the way of form, exploring more vase-like shapes and incorporating abstract sculptural elements to her pots.

‘For Jabulile, the process and its resultant forms serve as an enduring connection to her late mother.’ 

Jabulile Nala
Jabulile Nala, Burnished Ceramic Vessel, Image Courtesy of Jabulile Nala

An interest in teaching has seen Jabulile sharing her skills with others interested in learning the Nala technique over the years, although producing works to sell remains her primary goal. As she continues to exhibit and sell both locally and abroad, and host workshops for younger ceramicists, the Nesta tradition endures.   

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