Articles & Reviews
Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) & Zulu Ceramic Arts: Azolina MaMncube Ngema, One Woman’s Story
Elizabeth Perrill, Assistant Professor of Art History, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
This excerpt is drawn from Juliet Armstrong’s ‘Zulu Ceramics’, Indilinga-African Journal of Indigenous Knowledge Systems, 2005, and captures the anxieties scholars struggle with when they begin to acknowledge the deep implications their action or in-action can have on the standard of living and artistic practices of the individuals with whom they work. Armstrong’s article represents one of the first forays into explicitly Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) discourse by scholars working on Zulu ceramics, and the first arts-focused article to be published in Indilinga, an IKS journal predominantly concerned with agriculture, medicine, educational policies, and intellectual property rights.
When Armstrong speaks above of ‘preserv[ing] their indigenous knowledge’, she is referring to the attempt to protect artists through isolation from a trend she sees as threatening to ‘bastardize’ Zulu ceramics.2 Her concern is that ‘ill-informed dealers are dictating to these women’ styles that stray from the types of izinkamba (s. ukhamba ) used in ceremonies within Zulu homes.3 The most common type of izinkamba Armstrong refers to are nearly spherical vessels of a type incised or decorated with raised bumps (generally referred to as amasumpa), burnished at the leather-hard stage, blackened with a second ukufusa firing, and polished with cow fat or waxes.4 (Fig.1) Thus, it is with extreme irony that a pot of a type that Armstrong discusses in her 2005 article as ‘bastardized’, un-blackened with a very atypically wide neck and ‘Chinese influenced’ ringed-handles,5 is one of the only images on the Indilinga IKS journal website template and the only image used throughout all of the website’s pages.6
The reality is that material and aesthetic innovations made by individual artists/creators are tied to historical and economic changes. Broader historical flows influence IKSs and the individuals who continue to transform these knowledge systems. To think of an IKS as unchanging is just as false as claiming that traditions are static, an assumption that thankfully has been challenged and defeated within the past twenty years of anthropological and art historical writing. Artists utilize Indigenous Knowledge in KwaZulu-Natal within works that appear to ‘break’ with ‘traditional’ Zulu forms and use IKSs to inform their innovative designs. By linking shifting ceramic styles to historically embedded moments when IKSs are expanding and continuities within indigenous systems of aesthetic value, ceramic historians may be better equipped to understand the intricate connections that exist between Armstrong’s anxieties, works like that shown on the Idilinga website, and the complex life-worlds of rural Zulu-speaking ceramists. Despite assumptions that they are isolated, rural Zulu-speaking artists are creating a range of ceramics within a non-monolithic, dynamic and contemporary Zulu-ness, replete with formalized schooling, cell phones, and development initiatives, as well as darker trends of migrant labor, violence and economic depression.
Azolina MaMncube Ngema: Ceramic Lines, Life Lines
The life of Azolina MaMncube Ngema (Fig.2) brings together some of the more complex historical twists and turns that have shaped localized, national, and international appreciation of Zulu izinkamba, also known as utshwala ceramics or Zulu beer pots.7 MaMncube’s career and ceramic styles reveal some ways in which artists encapsulate moments within their life-histories in their artistic production. Ceramic traditions that rely upon a blend of indigenous and contemporary input defy labels such as ‘bastardized’ as it is used above. MaMncube’s life-history and the ceramic styles she associates with key moments in her biography poignantly bring out dramatic moments within the last fifty years of South African history. What is considered to be one of the most ‘traditional’ of women’s art forms provides the medium for this talented ceramist to express her contemporary life experiences and inspirations.
Throughout this essay I will refer to Azolina MaMncube Ngema as MaMncube or Mncube. The title MaMncube follows Zulu norms of respect known as ukuhlonipha , in which a woman is referred to by her maiden name and the prefix Ma-, meaning mother, but also goes beyond a woman's motherhood and marks her familial origin. Alternately, my use of Mncube borrows from the scholarly and art world style of showing respect by referring to artists by their surname. By using both of these titles I hope to show how Azolina MaMncube Ngema is a woman worthy of respect within both cultural traditions.
Documented as Azolina Mncunu, Aselina Mbatha, and Azolinah Mbatha within various publications,8 Mncube’s work was featured in the Royal Academy of Arts 1996 catalogue Africa: The Art of a Continent with no name attribution. 9 Additionally, I have recently identified an ukhamba, with an undulating raised design and subtly bottom-heavy form, that is nearly identical to the one in Africa: The Art of a Continent and strikingly similar to the one attributed under the surname Mbatha. This vessel was published anonymously in Ubuntu: Arts et Cultures d’Afrique du Sud, an exhibition and catalogue organized by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux of France in 2002.10 I would confidently attribute this vessel to Mncube. It is held in the private collection of the artist Karel Nel in Johannesburg, and is most likely of a similar vintage to the Africa: Art of a Continent and a ceramic vessel held in the Tatham Art Gallery published in the 1998 Ubumba Zulu ceramics catalogue. The simultaneous erasure of Azolina MaMncube Ngema’s name and showcasing of her talents in international venues was rumored in the South African ceramics community for years. The Africa: Art of a Continent publication was finally acknowledged within a footnote in Frank Jolles’s 2005 article, ‘The origins of the twentieth century Zulu beer vessel styles’,11 although Mncube is still documented as Azolinah Mbatha within this publication. For an example of this form before blackening see Fig.4.
During my eighteen months of research in KwaZulu-Natal, I spent several weeks speaking with MaMncube. During interviews conducted during 2006 and 2007, MaMncube identified several distinct styles or lines of ceramic vessels within her production:
Each of these lines caters to a specific audience, and MaMncube’s marketing, targeted at varied clientele, reflects similar efforts of many Zulu ceramists, who are attempting to diversify their works and make a living from their art.
Royal Ceramics or Abelungu Wares?
The examples of Mncube’s work illustrated within Africa: The Art of a Continent and Ubuntu: Arts et Cultures d’Afrique du Sud fall within the style of izinkamba that Mncube has stated, on several occasions, she keeps on hand in case abelungu (white people) stop by her home. At least, she attempted to have three or four works of this particular style in her home whenever possible up until she was forced to move from her residence near Nongoma, KwaZulu-Natal due to a violent attack in March of 2007, but this is a point to which we will return.
MaMncube pointed out that the abelungu -preferred style of vessel consists of izinkamba, spherical drinking pots, that are blackened, often bearing raised amasumpa decorations, have no lip, are burnished and are subsequently polished with ‘natural’ substances. What constitutes ‘natural’ will be discussed below and is highly enmeshed with the question of whose ideals this style was originally created for and, moreover, for whom the style continues. I would like to unpack just a few of the qualities defined by Mncube and some of the life experiences that she repeatedly associates with the narrative of these aesthetic traits.
Azolina MaMncube Ngema is a woman who enjoys telling stories, entertaining and educationg others with her oral narratives. Other Zulu potters who interacted with MaMncube during a business-skills workshop held in Durban in May of 2007 agreed that she is extremely skilled at crafting yarns, jokes, and anecdotes.12 During both formal interviews and informal discussions of her work MaMncube associates specific life experiences and periods in her career with the abelungu -preferred pots.
MaMncube skips over and over between a formalized analysis of amasumpa -bearing works and references to the sporadic moments between 1965 to the 1990s, during which foreign visitors visited her home, purchased works, and asked her to travel with them abroad. The narratives she repeats over an over, particularly of a moment when two white men wanted her to travel abroad with them, corresponds directly with the height of the sales in ‘traditional’ and anonymous Zulu ceramics in the 1980s.13
Collectors and scholars of Zulu ceramics have acknowledged that blackened works bearing amasumpa have historically been a more prestigious type of ceramic ware, sometimes associated with Zulu royalty.14 Indeed, the frontispiece of the most influential exhibition catalogue of Zulu ceramics published to date, Ubumba, shows King Dinizulu’s wives and amasumpa wares.15 However, for Mncube and many others, the continuation of this style is integrally linked to another type of high-paying patron - white, abelungu, scholars and collectors.
MaMncube and at least a dozen other Zulu-speaking ceramists have described to me how the time-intensive process of using applied decorations is simply too costly in terms of temporal outlay to waste at the prices most local buyers can afford. At eighty to one hundred Rand, or roughly 6-7 British pounds/12 US dollars, finely burnished amasumpa -bearing drinking vessels are outside the financial reach of local buyers. Instead, abelungu, a new set of social or economic elite, constitute a contemporary clientele. Amasumpa -bearing ceramics are associated with a romanticized past of Zulu royalty for collectors. This is an idealized past that these works share with many African ceramics traded on a commercial scale outside of their local area of production and associated with what have been assumed to be anonymous ‘traditional’ artists. Within Ruth Phillips and Christopher Steiner’s now foundational text Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds, multiple authors concur that within sculptural, masking, beading, and weaponry collecting crazes ‘curators and collectors were frequently either unaware of ... or chose to suppress ...’ the fact that works were commercially produced replicas.16 This similar willful ignorance seems to be the case within the collection of Mncube’s works during the rush to collect ‘older’ Zulu ceramics from the 1970s to the 1990s.17
Mncube does not produce commercial replicas per se, but her works have been portrayed as idealized museum examples of Zulu utshwala ceramics. The value placed on collecting works of antiquity and owning a piece of this idealized past would certainly explain why MaMncube’s works in Africa: The Art of a Continent ‘lost’ their provenance somewhere en route to publication. This loss of attribution would increase their value and prestige. 18 To say they were created by a woman who is still alive and, up until 2007, capable of producing works very similar to those published for a price of 7-8 British pounds/12 US dollars would certainly decrease the works’ prestige and commodity value.
The positive response MaMncube has had when presenting these amasumpa – bearing pieces to abelungu audiences at ceramic workshops and exhibitions has made white consumers MaMncube’s target audience for these vessels, and this audience does affect the works’ material aesthetics. That norms of antiquity are associated with these works does not escape MaMncube’s keen observations. In particular, she has emphasized that she knows that abelungu customers do not want shoe-polish to be used on this style.
Shoe or boot polish is commonly used by many contemporary Zulu ceramists during a final, post-firing polish, even within local communities when works will be produced for drinking (Fig.8). But, MaMncube has noted at gallery openings and during visits to her home that lifting and sniffing pots is part of routine abelungu evaluations of ceramics. She describes a humorous moment at a gallery opening where artists had been demonstrating in the exhibition venue and, after completing almost all of the steps in the ceramic process, a back room was used as the site for applying shoe-polish prior to taking works into the final venue for the ceramic exhibition and sale. The preference for ‘natural’ polishes and the categorization of shoe polish as unnatural and a negative aesthetic choice is something that MaMncube has certainly noticed.
In this interview excerpt, Mncube explains the various problems with shoe polish and cow fat. Some ceramics she sells for external consumption simply remain un-blackened, a style of work that saves her the work of the ukufusa second firing and avoids any concerns that ceramic works might smell like shoe polish. Creating non-blackened works presents one quick solution to this problem, and holds the extra appeal to some of capturing flame marks on their surface, a feature valued by some collectors (Fig.3).
However, many abelungu buyers will not accept unblackened izinkamba. There is a substantial amount of scholarship by non-Zulu authors mentioning the importance of having blackened pots to honor one’s ancestors, as black has been aesthetically linked as a cool color that pleases Zulu ancestral spirits. Additionally, Zulu ceramists and ceramic customers confirm that amadlozi, the ancestors, enjoy a black pot.19 Thus, an unblackened pot is seen as non-traditional by many buyers, both Zulu and non-Zulu. The majority of white buyers MaMncube has interacted with prefer blackened vessels, which is why she keeps them on hand in her home.
Additionally, MaMncube has observed white buyers’ concepts of what is ‘clean’ and their dislike of the way the carbonized surface of pots that have been blackened by the historically older process of a second ukufusa firing comes off on one’s hands if izinkamba are polished with ifutha, cow fat. To satisfy abelungu buyers’ conceptions of a ‘traditional,’ ‘natural,’ and ‘clean’ finish MaMncube uses clear candle wax on her blackened works (Fig.9). Odorless and much less likely to come off on one’s hands, candle wax represents the perfect compromise to satisfy her affluent audience’s selectively historical and hygienically informed aesthetics.
Painted Pots: Local Prestige and Aesthetics
Another line of more, ‘high-end’ ceramics produced by MaMncube consists of her painted ceramic wares (Fig.10). She is very pointed about the fact that these are high-end works for local consumers, produced as they are commissioned. As with the work bearing amasumpa, the time involved in meticulously painting the triangular or more freeform designs she has developed dictates that these works sell at a higher price.
MaMncube first saw the use of paint on ceramic wares in Johannesburg while traveling to see her husband, who was working as a migrant mine-laborer. The style that she created just after this experience has a great deal of resonance with her local audience, and the way in which Mncube has created a hybridized decorative style certainly is participating with an indigenous system of aesthetic knowledge.
As part of a social structure tied to the migrant labor system, Mncube was one of many women who were banned from visiting husbands in South Africa’s mines. Despite the risks, Mncube illicitly visited her husband and stayed with him for several weeks. Although she has no record or way of knowing the precise date of this journey, it is likely that MaMncube took this visit sometime between 1986 and 1990. During this period, regulations had loosened and space was freeing up in the workers’ hostels popular with Nongoma miners, as many urban workers moved into townships and squatter areas.20
When she returned home, MaMncube began producing painted ceramics with her own distinctive style. Most often this consists of a grid-work of triangles very similar to that seen in Zulu beadwork. The combination of red, green, and white is set off against a blackened ukhamba base. The pattern she creates is pointedly similar to Nongoma style beadwork (Fig.11, compare with Figs.5 & 9). Mncube developed this new decorative style with an obvious visual appeal to local aesthetic preferences.21 It is important to note that the 1980s and 1990s, when MaMncube was first making these pots, was a time of extremely violent faction fighting and increased Zulu nationalism. Traditional dress was often used during this period as a visual signifier of political unity and mobilization. Nongoma, Mncube’s home, was a stronghold of Zulu-nationalism and a powerhouse within South African workers’ hostels. The leadership within workers’ hostels would often romanticize rural homelands and use them as a basis for urban solidarity.22 Thus, Mncube’s borrowing of beadwork designs that were a potent marker of regional identity certainly fits in with the desire for regionalized Zulu-ness to be displayed in the regalia that would accompany life-events, such as weddings, coming-of-age ceremonies, or funerals.
Mncube is a business-woman who is adapting to different markets and accommodating aesthetic desires within the bounds of her own expressive style. Her painted wares certainly retain and build upon the Indigenous Knowledge System of Zulu ceramic production and localized, Nongoma area aesthetic preferences of pattern and color combinations. She also knows that the practice of painting ceramics with enamel paint is considered by many contemporary Zulu and non-Zulu speakers alike to be a Sotho or BaSotho tradition. 23 MaMncube emphasized that she had never shown these works to abelungu. However, Mncube is always evasive when asked if this was a deliberate move or a coincidence, simply the product of works not being on hand because they are consistently commissioned and retrieved by local consumers with little time to sit around Mncube’s home. The question remains: Did she keep these wares away from her abelungu customers to focus their attention on her amasumpa wares and hide what outsiders might see as less ‘traditional’ works, or was it just happenstance?
My own role as a scholar is in no way neutral. After seeing my interest in her style of painting, MaMncube stated she would now show these works to the abelungu. I explained that my interest is informed by my preoccupation with the history of Zulu migrant-labor that Mncube associates with this style. We discussed at length together, and with Nathi Gumede, the curator of the KwaZulu-Natal Society for the Arts Gallery at a business-skills meeting held in Durban in May of 2007, the ways in which the promotion of an art form often has a great deal to do with the story one tells around the piece.
Molding Self-Image: Indigenous and Abelungu Value Systems
The concept of self-presentation and promotion is certainly something that is loaded with political implications within KwaZulu-Natal, where education and ethnic affiliations have been steeped in political connotations before, during, and after Apartheid. Azolina MaMncube Ngema has learned, during ceramic workshops24 and through her own astute observations, the importance of being seen as an artist who is interested in creativity and able to understand audience desires.
A final category of the ‘separate designs’ MaMncube has created in response to abelungu and other audiences is her line of sculpted figures and vase forms, on which she uses pinched decorative textures that do not appear on her izinkamba. Both of these ceramic lines fall well outside of the realm of izinkamba or utshwala vessels, but they are definitely wares that Mncube uses to define herself as artistic and contemporary to both buyers supplying local shops targeted at Zulu-speaking audiences and abelungu visitors.
Virginia Ndwandwe runs a small shop selling goods for decorating local homes near Nongoma that is supported by local government initiatives. She carries vases very similar to the ‘bastardized’ style of vase that is mentioned above by Juliet Armstrong and depicted on the Indilinga IKS journal website. In the following excerpt she discusses the vases Mncube creates that she was hoping to stock at her shop (examples in Fig.5 & within Fig.10).
Ndwandwe responds to the question of whether these works are fashionable by saying they are presented on Zulu-speaking consumers’ wall units. To anyone familiar with township or rural life in KwaZulu-Natal this is a resounding yes to the question of whether the pieces are fashionable. Wall units are where televisions, radios, decorative knick-knacks, clocks, enlargements of family photos, and school diplomas are proudly displayed. The markers of affluence and success within a family, particularly electronics and photos or documents from matriculations, weddings, and coming of age ceremonies signify success within this very dynamic Zulu cultural practice. Both tradition and contemporaneity are celebrated within wall units. The production of ceramic vases for flowers is a way MaMncube caters to this contemporary fashion.
On the other hand, in relation to her small figurines of men holding izinkamba or women with contemporary handbags (see Fig.7), Mncube builds a narrative of artistic creativity (Fig.7). When discussing these figurines MaMncube often says that she dreams or simply comes up with these ceramic forms from her imagination. She is adamant that no one tells her how to make these figures. Something that has struck me as an important narrative style over several interviews is Mncube’s repeated discussion of learning ceramics first within formalized school education as she works on or evaluates her figural works. While working on the piece illustrated in Fig.6 Mncube said the following:
Although she does not refer to ceramics directly, Mncube mentions the ‘reasoning’ or ‘cleverness’ that she associates with the wide variety of ceramic work she has developed. In other discussions she has recalled that she first molded clay at school and tends to reassert this as a difference between herself and other ceramists from the Nongoma region.
Formalized schooling connotes a great deal of prestige for MaMncube. Her style of narration when explaining her figurines is also often re-emphasized when she sends a child off to her sleeping room to bring back the image of her and ‘Julia’ (the source of this pseudonym for Juliet Armstrong comes from the misprinted label below the image, ‘Asolinah & Julia’). This labeled photograph acts as Mncube’s document of her time with this ceramic lecturer during workshops held at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2003 or 2004. At the workshop Mncube recalls being asked to prove she was a ceramist by drawing her designs, and how she was able to recall and illustrate more designs than any other attendee.25
The viewing of this photograph from the 2003 or 2004 University of Natal workshop has become linked within her narratives to her early school experiences at the KwaDenge Catholic School in approximately the mid- to late 1940s.26 These two institutional experiences, both part of the white-run style of formal education, have affirmed her creativity in terms of what she calls ‘cleverness,’ which she associates with the diversity of her forms and designs. Despite their distance from one another temporally both institutional experiences are part of a repeated narrative structure Mncube has developed that is strongly associated with her figurines.
Yet, formalized education constitutes only one component of Mncube’s self-presentation as a creative individual. She also frequently discusses the indigenous system of dreaming about one’s inspirations and discusses the older women who come to her in dreams to give guidance and premonitions. These dreams inspired her to create ceramic figurines, inform her of new clay sources, and let her know of upcoming visits from influential clients. When I had tried to call and failed to reach her, prior to one of my visits, MaMncube teased me by saying she is never surprised when abelungu appear at her house, even if they do not call ahead via cell phone.
Mncube follows instructions given in her dreams and, prior to her recent move from the Nongoma area, she had three separate clay sources, one of which she discovered in 2005 after dreaming of an older woman who guided her to this new source. These stories are deeply ingrained in IKSs. The links to ancestral spirits are a point of curiosity and added value for Zulu-speakers and non-Zulu-speakers alike.27 I have seen individuals of both linguistic/cultural backgrounds enwrapped by Mncube’s narratives of dreaming, ancestral guidance, and creativity.
Certainly, claims of ‘authenticity’ versus ‘bastardization’ create a false dichotomy that falls away when we consider MaMncube’s complex inspirations. Indigenous Knowledge Systems encourage her innovations and creativity – she dreams of figural ceramics and creative designs. MaMncube also uses her insight into collectors’ concerns to create ‘traditional, ‘natural’ and ‘clean’ amasumpa wares. Detailed research brings to light the subtleties of the contemporary philosophical and cultural knowledge systems from which Azolina MaMncube Ngema draws. The subtle give-and-take between that which is ‘traditional’ and that which is ‘imported,’ the preservation and/or modification within each of Mncube’s ceramic lines, makes dichotomous thinking much less useful when trying to understand her creativity and self-presentation.
Within his April 2005 speech to the National Heritage Council Transformation Conference, South Africa’s Minister of Arts and Culture laid out a definition of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage,’ which incorporates Indigenous Knowledge Systems. He stated:
The minister’s comments struck me at first as somewhat troubling. He all too comfortably juxtaposes ‘living heritage’ as predating ‘the imperial and colonial era’ with an inventorying of familiar anthropological litanies of ‘birth, coming of age, maturity, marriage, old age and death.’ The essentialism implied is a bit shocking, for certainly Indigenous Knowledge Systems help individuals negotiate political power struggles, develop their own styles of using cell-phones and the internet, and can be incorporated into complex systems of individual creativity. Nevertheless, after presenting a much earlier version of this paper at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, I returned to his statement and was intrigued by the minister’s closing line that IKSs help individuals ‘create stability’ and ‘co-exist with other communities.’
My doctoral research is a specialized network study that attempts to historicize the rise of particular Zulu ceramists to relative fame within South African and international ceramic markets. As such, I am attempting to understand constantly transforming norms of communicative action and aesthetics. To pin down indigineity within MaMncube’s work is tricky, and perhaps futile, but certainly could help her market her work on an international scale. Historically referential amasumpa wares created today for mostly white audiences, the painted wares made on commission for local weddings, and sculptures inspired by ancestral dreams are all derived from Indigenous Knowledge Systems. The economic exchange value placed on each style of ceramic work is in the end tied to consumers’ Knowledge Systems, their level of affluence, and to the aesthetic ‘traditions,’ histories, inspirations, and aesthetic preferences they want to support through their purchasing power.
Between 2001 and 2006 MaMncube collaborated with Reeves Gumede, Wilbur Force Shamase, and Jannie Van Heerden at the Bhekizulu College in Nongoma. She became the instructor for the ceramic component of students’ arts studies in a program that Van Heerden, senior subject adviser for arts and crafts in the KwaZulu-Natal Education Department, is trying to encourage throughout the KwaZulu-Natal school system.28 This instructorship was one step towards making sure Zulu-speaking students in Nongoma value the transforming Indigenous Knowledge Systems that are a basis of inspiration and creativity for ceramists in rural KwaZulu-Natal.
One of the students involved in this project, Nozipho Zulu, recently traveled with me to Nongoma to visit her instructor MaMncube on her way home during a school break. Zulu had recently won the top prize for a third year arts student at the Durban University of Technology in 2005 for her portfolio of work which included welding, casting, painting, drawing, and ceramics.29 By incorporating MaMncube’s instruction into the curriculum, the teaching that the Bhekizulu College provided Nozipho Zulu with the proper context to appreciate the deep connotations associated with Zulu ceramic arts. Whether Zulu continues on to explore the Knowledge Systems touched on by MaMncube within her contemporary installation work will be determined by what styles of knowledge and problem solving this young artist continues to value, but she has been given the chance to start from a foundation that values the complexity of local artistic creation in KwaZulu-Natal.
In the end, all of the works in MaMncube’s oeuvre are infused with some level of IKS knowledge. Her acknowledgment of her multiple audiences and hybridized ceramics could, in the words of the Minister of Arts and Culture, be seen as her particular style of ‘creat[ing] stability’ and ‘co-exist[ing] with other communities.’ Mncube would often mention during my early visits that she saw on the television that people were not always kind to tourists, and that she wanted to try and be as welcoming as possible. Yet, even the balancing act she performed between satisfying internal and external audiences has recently fallen apart. On the 28 th of February 2007 Azolina MaMncube Ngema was, at the age of 70, shot point-blank several times in the abdomen and right arm. This professionally commissioned attempted murder was carried out at her home in Nongoma, and in her account of the events, stems from familial jealousy over money and the family lobola exchanges given during one of her daughter’s wedding ceremony, a wedding for which she was creating painted ceramic works during one of the interviews quoted above.
As an independent woman with moderate economic success MaMncube has become the target of violence, a type of event that is surprisingly common within a nation that ranked fourth out of sixty-two nations evaluated in the International Crime Victimization Survey 1989-2000. As this, and other statistics report, women are often vulnerable to violent crime, a situation which is only exacerbated by economic depression.30 MaMncube miraculously survived this attack and has found support within the community of ceramists and scholars who have played some role in her life for the past several decades: members of the Nala family of potters, Juliet Armstrong of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Jannie Van Heerden the senior subject adviser for arts and crafts in the KwaZulu-Natal Education Department, Wilbur Force Shamase of the Bhekizulu College in Nongoma, and myself. Her son has helped her relocate to a location outside of Nkadla, but Mncube is fearful of returning to her home or the life she had built near Nongoma, KwaZulu-Natal and is struggling to collect her old-age pensions and the government grants she relied on to support the three orphaned children in her care.
In the midst of this violence it is difficult to continue discussions of indigenous or non-indigenous aesthetics, cultures, or indeed value systems. The Arts and Culture Minister’s claim that indigenous knowledge has created
rings a bit false when the ceramist whose work was held up as an ideal within a publication like Africa: The Art of a Continent has found, despite her attempts to create stability and survival strategies, that the vulnerability of a widow living with young orphans outweighs community involvement and IKSs that should respect a woman of such advanced age.
These are not issues that art historians and ceramists often confront within their research, but I cannot help but close with these most recent events in one gifted artist’s life. Her life-history has encapsulated so many historical moments in South African history, the unfolding history of formal education systems, migratory labor, the liberal fascination with indigenaity and arts, and now the violent flux that is experienced by urban and rural South Africans and occasionally pours into the broadsheets of the rest of the world.
Certainly, the concepts of economic empowerment versus protection of indigenous knowledge that Juliet Armstrong brought up within her 2005 quotation at the beginning of this article takes on a double entendre given recent events. Due to familial jealousy one of the famous Nala family of Zulu potters was also shot and killed in 2006. The violence of contemporary South Africa is impacting rurally-based women, not just urbanites. It may certainly be that the attention and moderate success brought to artists by arts communities is a liability in the midst of economically depressed areas. Indeed, MaMncube has been denied one of the basic human rights provided for under the progressive South African Constitution. Section 12.1.c reads: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom and security of person, which includes the right to be free from all forms of violence from either public or private sources.’31
As tourism and the arts become more and more important in non-G8 or ‘developing’ nations, stability is not necessarily ensured for those who, against the odds, find financial success. MaMncube is nothing if not a woman of amazing spirit and determination. She has built upon a contemporary ceramic tradition to find a way to live and create in the midst of dramatic times (Fig.12). Yet, who can protect ‘Living Heritage’, when economic depression and violence can bring murder to the homes of women who do not consistently have running water, electricity, or the security of one of South Africa’s constitutional rights, the freedom from violence?
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Alvazzi del Frate, Ann, Jan J M van Dijk, John van Kesteren, and Patricia Mayhew. International Crime Victimization Survey 1989-2000. First ICPSR Version, Ann Arbor, Michigan, ICVS International Working Group, 2003.
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Itter, Bill, Personal Conversation, 5 April 2007.
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|Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) & Zulu Ceramic Arts Issue 10|