Jabulile Nala


Jabulile Nala

Hailing from one of the foremost families of Zulu ceramics, Jabulile Nala bears the memory of a line of female ceramicists that can be traced back to 1900. Born in KwaZulu-Natal, and rooted in the ceramic traditions of her mother, Nesta Nala, and her grandmother, Simphiwe Nala, Jabulile Nala creates sculptural forms which spiral wildly from their origin point in the Zulu clay heritage, at once incorporating and defying traditions. Ukhamba is the term for blackened vessels that are used during rituals within Zulu culture for serving and drinking beer; pots used for communing with the ancestors. Traditionally, the motifs that they hold extend out of a communal cosmological framework: one might glimpse the remnants of arched doorways, seen as entranceways to the womb, or sharp downward-facing triangles like pointed stakes in the ground as symbols of masculinity. Jabulile Nala has innovated even further: compressing the round belly of the ukhamba, flanking its sides with handles more commonly found on traditional meat dishes, and providing a larger surface on which to incise and sculpt a myriad of minute geometric structures. Once the ukhamba lands in the hands of Jabulile it is sodden with waves of history, heavy and warm with all the bodies that have made it. Her mother’s hand, her breath, and the bodies and spirits of the long line of mothers before, appearing in each incision, each coax, each pull of the clay. This artistic and cultural continuity is held in revolutions of form, the flashes of “idiosyncratic flare” are in fact, perhaps paradoxically, great acts of preservation. To hold the ukhamba is to remember a long tradition of art and ritual. To transform the ukhamba is to keep the pot alive, to sustain a vital force, like tending to a garden or telling a story.

Born in Eshowe in KwaZulu-Natal (1969), Jabulile Nala comes from a strong matriarchal lineage: her mother was “the most famous named Zulu potter of the twentieth century,” Nesta Nala (1940–2005) who began making vessels in clay at the age of twelve, learning the tradition from her mother, Siphiwe Nala (1914–2003), who had in turn been taught by Nesta’s paternal grandmother. Specifics of form and motif have carried through the bloodline, manifesting in delicate changes over time. Jabulile Nala has been hand-coiling forms, notably the familial ukhamba and uphiso, since 1980. Her work often pays tribute to the characteristically dainty bases of her mother’s pots and the richness of their motifs: the power and symbolism of the triangular form, especially in juxtaposition with the vessel’s curved outline.

Jabulile Nala, Ukhamba, 2023, smoke-fired blackened terracotta. 31cm (high) x 16cm (wide) x 16cm (deep).  

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“Some traditions are of such a heft that they are born of many mothers. And in the case of the Zulu ceramic tradition, the mother is often literal. Mothers, and the mothers of mothers, down a great ancestral chain have left their hands in the clay. Distinct from the individualistic, Western paradigm of “The Great Artist” is a subtler tradition: a making along the ancestral line, a making with many hands and many voices.”

This publication is dedicated to contemporary clay and ceramics from South Africa, offering enthusiasts and collectors a glimpse into the studios of thirty important South African artists.