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An Angolan Heritage: the Ceramics of Helga Gamboa

Helga Gamboa, ceramic artist and PhD student



Helga Gamboa is a ceramic artist of Angolan origin now mainly based in the UK. She is currently studying for a PhD. Inspired by her country of birth her ceramics explore issues of post-colonial identity using hand-building techniques characteristic of African pottery combined with transfer-printed tin glaze associated with Portuguese ceramics. The images, however, are drawn from contemporary culture such as newspaper photographs of the effects of war and civil strife. Complementary to her art practice, her PhD research is a longitudinal study of Kwanyama ceramics based on contemporary production in comparison with the 1930s using detailed records made by Diane and Antoinette Powell-Cotton. This article is based on her presentation at the ‘Traditional Women Potters: Old Forms and New Markets’ symposium in Aberystwyth in July 2008.

Key words: Post-colonial identity, Angola, Powell-Cotton, Kwanyama

Traditional African techniques of pottery making are at the root of my work. I draw inspiration from artefacts and their role in society and at the same time I explore the history of my country as well as its, and my own, cultural identity. The brutal experiences of slavery, colonialism and civil war have shaped both personal and national histories in Angola. Among the most vulnerable in society are women and children and for this reason their situation is particularly important to me.

I was born in 1961 in Angola, a southern African country which has suffered a long history of colonialism and exploitation by the Portuguese and others from the sixteenth century until the late twentieth century. Following independence in 1975, civil war blighted the country for a further twenty-six years.

I was raised in Luanda, the capital city during the colonial period and lived through times of revolution, post-colonial communism and civil war. During this era and earlier periods of pernicious colonialism, people were subjected to many injustices including the suppression of cultural identity. For example, the Portuguese colonisers did not allow the use of traditional names, clothes or even the Angolan languages and consequently people of my generation, especially those from urban areas, often have confused identities because they have lost much sense of their own cultural heritage.

In my work, I enjoy the challenge of combining my ideas with the making process. My vessels are formed with coils of earthenware clay. They are burnished with slip colours and biscuit fired to a 1000ºC. I then use an opaque tin glaze which is fired to 1060ºC. Ceramic transfers and lustres are applied and fired to between 650ºC to 750ºC. After overnight sawdust firing the pots are waxed and polished. Although most of my pots are coiled, there are occasions when I use industrial table wares or make slip-cast forms or moulds to achieve my creative goals.

Usually I give titles to my vessels. Blasted I (Fig.1) has a rounded base and an elongated neck, brown slip outside, tin glaze inside with transfer images and words inside, a gold-lustred rim and sawdust and smoke fire marks - all of which carry symbolic associations for me. Meanings connected with this vessel include motherhood in the roundness of the base, the male power of destruction in the elongated neck, mother earth in the brown slip colour, the past/present of colonialism, domination and mass production in the white tin glaze, civil war in the sawdust marks and western influences of new technology, news and manipulation in ceramic transfer images which show street children, women victims of landmines and child famine victims. In the lustres I see the possibility of a better future.

An example of my use of industrial ware is the piece Breakfast Thoughts (Fig.2) where the plate, cup, saucer and bowl symbolise colonialism and mass production including the manufacture of war materials such as land mines. The images of women on crutches show the results of slavery, colonialism and civil war while the endless circle of images of women’s faces is suggestive of mass destruction and death.

Aftermath (Fig. 3) is about the struggle of Angolan rural women to survive during and after the Civil War. This pot is hand built with burnished black slip colour, white tin glaze, ceramic transfer images and gold lustre. The rounded base embodies ideas of the female womb, motherhood and just above the base where one would place ones’ hands to lift the vessel are two rounded mounds which suggest support, holding and caring. The black slip colour represents loss and death while the white symbolises colonialism with imprinted imagery of the Civil War. The long neck with the different levels of transfers denotes the immense challenges of being a mother in these circumstances.

Madonna and Child (Fig.4) is a piece about a mother holding her sick child and the fear of losing that child. The womb-like bowl is the container of motherhood, and the love and despair of women when experiencing the loss of a child.   

Although aesthetics play a great part in my thoughts when making a pot, my intention is to create objects that will not solely be seen as aesthetically pleasing or decorative objects but will draw attention to the struggle and pain in life that so many women are forced to endure.

My urban upbringing in a Portuguese colonial environment meant that I did not come into contact with indigenous pottery and its everyday or ceremonial functions. I studied and developed as an artist in the UK and it is ironic that it is an outside culture that was instrumental in leading me to a greater understanding of my own native culture.

Following marriage to an Englishman and during periods in the UK in the 1980s my frequent visits to museums and galleries inspired my interest in ceramics. Seeing pottery elevated to the status of art was new to me because I came from a society in which ceramics did not have a special place. I wanted to understand the technical complexity and the narrative aspects of delftware, majolica and kakiemon pottery.

Both as a result of moving to England in the 1990s and my earlier experiences in colonial and later post-colonial Angola, I became very interested in cultural studies. When I returned to education, I combined my interest in both arts and cultural history and completed a BA and an MA in Ceramics at the University of West of England. I am greatly indebted to the artists/teachers/mentors of these years. From our very first meeting Mike Hughes was an inspiring presence. At my interview for a place on the undergraduate ceramic course he persuaded three other sceptical interviewers that even with my limited experience of ceramics and a rather thin portfolio, I merited a place on the course.

Walter Keeler inspired me with his throwing and thought little of sharing his lead glaze recipes. But it was Elizabeth Turrell who introduced me to hand building and burnishing which is the key influence on my work to this day and we furthermore shared a common interest in African (and Indian) art.

I was generally intrigued by all ceramic works but particularly loved looking at the work of Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Bernard Leach, Keith Murray, Bernard Palissy and Michael Cardew. These were the potters whose work was most often discussed during my undergraduate years. I was intrigued by the links between Cardew and the Nigerian potters and his role as a conduit between two cultures and the interaction between these cultures.

I first began to study Angolan craft and its role in society for an undergraduate project and developed this further during my MA looking at Angolan pottery made by women from the south. At the Powell-Cotton Museum I located a collection of more than three thousand Kwanyama artefacts collected by Diane and Antoinette, daughters of Major P.H.G Powell-Cotton. These two sisters, under the influence of their father, became interested in exploring other cultures and travelled to the south of Angola in the 1930s. This valuable cultural collection is more substantial than any I have seen in Angola and I feel it holds the potential to play a major role in reawakening Angolan cultural identity.

The history of the Powell-Cottons represents shifting perspectives in colonial attitudes as it charts the progression among the family members from game hunters to naturalists to anthropologists. This can be seen in the care and seriousness of the collecting, detailed note-making and filming undertaken by the two sisters. Central to my research is a comparison of the sisters’ observations of the Kwanyama women potters in the 1930s and my own observations made on contemporary field trips to the Kwanyama and Nhaneca-Humbe region. (Fig. 5)

In general in southern Angola, allowing for minor variations among ethnic groups, pottery is of two types: functional and ceremonial. Most pots are functional domestic objects used in everyday life for storage and cooking, but in some areas pots also carry central roles in ceremonies surrounding such important events as birth, marriage and death. After the events these pots are kept in a store until they are needed again. Pottery also plays an important part in the community economy and helps to sustain the families of the makers. (Fig.5)

My own identity as an artist and researcher is complicated. In some ways it contains elements of the victim: my mother tongue is an ‘imposed’ European tongue rather than an African language; I knew little of the native culture and heritage of my own country and was brought up at a time when the power structures in my society undermined all things Angolan attempting to superimpose on them a Portuguese, European culture and identity. When I visit traditional communities in Angola the differences between my Angolan culture and theirs is striking. The fact that I need an interpreter, our different forms of dress, the life patterns and diet I encounter - all tell me how much more influenced by European culture my Angolan identity is than the people in rural communities in Angola.

But my identity as an artist and researcher is also one of privilege: in practical terms the fact that I am Angolan greatly facilitates my research. My mother tongue, Portuguese, is the main official language of Angola and I also have the contacts and insider knowledge of the dominant culture of Angola. More importantly the greatest privilege is the understanding I am gaining about my culture and identity through my art and my research. In a sense I am recovering, or excavating elements of Angolan culture previously hidden from me. In March 2008 for the first time I exhibited in Angola with the textile artist, Marcela Costa in a show entitled Tua dissangue boba, (‘We meet here’). (See Fig. 6).

Much of the cultural history of southern Angola is held in oral traditions and the migration of many people coupled with very low life expectancy may mean that much of its historical and cultural information has already disappeared. It is inherently fragile since this traditional knowledge system is passed down from one generation to another by word of mouth. I aim in my ceramic work and research to make a contribution to recording and even sustaining a fascinating and vibrant part of Angola’s cultural identity.

A review of the exhibition in French is available on line at: http://angola.africancolours.net/content/16160


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The Pottery of Northern Ghana

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The Role and Status of Women in the Pottery-Making Traditions of the Western Balkans

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Coalpot and Canawi: Traditional Creole Pottery in the Contemporary Commonwealth Caribbean

by Patricia Fay

An Angolan Heritage: The Ceramics of Helga Gamboa

by Helga Gamboa

Dialogues with Tradition in the Ceramics of Eytan Gross

by Nurith Kenaan-Kedar

Sankofa exhibition at Manchester, review

by Angharad Thomas

Sankofa exhibition at Aberystwyth, review

by Kathy Talbot and Louise Chennell

Searching For Beauty, Richard Jacobs, book review

by Conor Wilson

Review of the event 'Richard Jacobs and Jeffrey Jones in conversation in Cardiff

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Breaking the Mould, book review

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Kiln Building, Jo Finch, book review

by Tom Barnett


© The copyright of all the images in this article rests with the author unless otherwise stated

An Angolan Heritage • Issue 10