When a Zulu wife offers beer to her husband or to guests, she does so in a beautifully shaped black pot, the famous ukhamba.
In the 21st century, many Zulu homes have no other traditional items, yet the ukhamba remains as the one item that binds Zulu custom. It is used in all beer drinking rituals, particularly to offer beer to the ancestors, and even when broken, the sherds (udengezi) are used to burn imphepho incense to connect to the ancestors.
The laborious process to make one of these exquisite vessels starts with a long walk to at least two different rivers to dig clay out of the bank. Should the riverbank have dried out, the clay must be hacked out with a hammer and chisel. If the crafter is lucky, she has the use of donkeys to transport the heavy earth back to her home. If not, the container is swung up on to her head.
Once home, the wet clay has to be dried out before it can be pulverised on an ordinary grinding stone. At this stage, the two different clays are mixed to form a strong blend that will not shrink more than 10% during firing, and any old pieces of pot can be ground into the mixture. The powdered clay is sieved to remove impurities, then reconstituted with water to create a smooth, firm medium that stands for twenty-four hours before use.
When looking at the beautifully symmetric form of a Zulu pot, one must remember that there is no potterâ���™s wheel or kiln available. The pot is formed by building up coils of clay and smoothing them down with any found items such as the back of a spoon or a water-worn rock. One has only to look at the work of a beginner to see how difficult it is to maintain form!
The hardening pot is put to one side until it has reach leather-hardness, when the design is created using found items once again. Maize cobs, sharpened bicycle or umbrella spokes, combs and anything else that will create an attractive pattern are brought into use. Originally, pots were mostly decorate by attaching little lumps called amasumpa (warts) to stop the pot from slipping but today the most intricate designs are to be found, ranging from leaves, houses and shields to complicated geometric patterns.
The pot is allowed to dry further until it is considered ready for firing. The first firing is preferably done with the trunk and leaves of the aloe ferox. The dead trunk is split and used to make a base upon which the leaves are piled. This is set alight and some of the first coals are put into each pot to warm it. The pots are then piled on the fire and more leaves are used to cover them. It will take about an hour to burn down, reaching temperatures of up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit. In areas where the aloe is unavailable, a range of local woods is used, with mthombothi being a favourite.
Traditionally, a Zulu beer pot must be black as it is considered an insult to serve beer in anything but a black pot. This requires a second firing and in this case individual crafters tend to have their own preferences about fuel. In many areas it is regarded as important that the pot is smeared first with cow dung as a way of linking with the ancestors, reminding us of the importance of cattle in the Zulu culture.
When ready for use the pot has to be polished, a task previously carried out with the use of animal fat. However, today shoe polish and floor polish have allowed crafters the freedom to skip the second firing and to select a range of black, browns and reds to complement their many and varied designs. This also allows a higher gloss that makes the pots more acceptable to their new market â€����� the collector.
The fragility of a Zulu pot makes it expensive to transport commercially, so it would only be the serious collector who would be able to include the metre-high imbizo or cooking pot in his collection. Also seen less often is the high-necked uphiso for storing beer, or even less the gourd-shaped igula for carrying water or making sour milk (imasi).
While potters abound throughout the Zulu country, the area around Eshowe has become known for the exceptionally high standard of its pottery, largely through the influence of the late Nesta Nala. From a slightly clumsy, functional item, in Ms Nalaâ€���s gifted hands Zulu pottery become an article of artistic beauty. Her five daughters have all distinguished themselves as potters, and the other potters of the area have used her work as their benchmark. As a result, today we can enjoy the very creative products of Nestaâ€™s kinsman, Ntombi Nala, the ladies of the Magwaza clan, as well as Anna Myeni and Makhosi Ntuli of the Ndlovini area. Another change is the interest pottery is receiving from men, for whom it was traditionally â€˜not done��€�����. Thus we have the great pleasure of adding the work of Clive Sithole, Siphiwe Belle and Brian Mkhize, amongst others, to the names of exceptional potters. The museum is also the proud owner of three very beautiful pots made by Ian Garrett in the Zulu tradition.