Interpreting Ceramics | issue 14 | 2012

Conference Papers & Article

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Not all Cows are Piebald:

Ceramics and Sculpture in South Africa1


Wilma Cruise

Contents | Home

What difference can a description make?

Michael Hose

'You can use clay, but you can't do ceramics'

Some Thoughts on Why Ceramics isn´t Sculpture

Conor WIlson

From Ceramics to the Bronze Age:

Commercializing Sculpture in the United Kingdom and on the Continent – A Juxtaposition
Part I

Isabel Hufschmidt

Order and Disorder:

Some Relationships between Ceramics, Sculpture and Museum Taxonomies

Michael Tooby

Hans Coper:

Sculpture in Architecture

Alun Graves

Why Clay?


Stephen Dixon

Not all Cows are Piebald:

Ceramics and Sculpture in South Africa

Wilma Cruise


NB. A Word document is available to download at the end of each article.

That Grayson Perry, ceramic artist, can occupy the very cutting edge of contemporary art should be proof enough that the debate about ceramics as a separate artistic genre has ended. Now that the centre has folded (or so we are told) it is anathema to rank the products of creative endeavour into categories that suggest difference. But, as I will argue, in the dark not all cows are piebald. The postmodern democratization of art has left ceramics out in the cold. The critical discourse brought to bear fails in the face of the specialist requirements of studio ceramics. As a result there is a breakdown of critical language pertinent to ceramics. Similarly sculpture made from fired clay seems to suffer from a confusion of critical language. This is especially true when clay sculptures and ceramics are exhibited in the same exhibition.

Investigating issues of just how we see and assess ceramics and ceramic sculpture, I will dissect the problem of ceramics and sculpture within the context of the bi-annual national competition hosted by Ceramics South Africa, as well investigating the work of South African artists who are located on the boundary of ceramic and sculptural discourses, such as Nicolene Swanepoel, Hylton Nel, Drury Brandt and myself.

In South Africa, a juried competition, The Corobrik National Ceramics Exhibition, is held every second year under the auspices of Ceramics Southern Africa (formerly the Association of Potters of Southern Africa).2 Members of the association submit objects made from fired clay for selection. The accepted objects are adjudicated and a number of prizes awarded, of which the premier prize, The Corobrik Award is the most coveted.  While the vessel traditionally has dominated the competition, sculptural works have also appeared, often under a separate category. The juxtaposition of vessels and sculptures raises uncomfortable questions, forcing R. Lapping Sellars to question the nature of pots and sculptures. She in effect asked when is a pot not a pot and when is it a sculpture…. does it matter that a pot is sometimes not a pot and a sculpture is some times a pot?3

The question was brought to the fore at the first Corobrik sponsored exhibition in 1992, when a sculptural work Without Judgement won the main prize.4 Lapping-Sellars wrote:

what on earth are life-size sculptures doing in the middle of the room? ... The first and most obvious division would be to divorce the potters from the sculptors, the latter being a splinter group of artists who really should not be stealing the thunder from the makes of finely glazed casserole dishes.5

Over the years the relevance of Lapping-Sellar’s observation has not diminished; if anything the question has become more uncomfortable as the democratizing tendencies of poststructuralist thinking sweep all distinctions between studio pottery and art aside. But, as I will argue, the dissolution of difference does not necessarily result in sameness. Whether a ceramic object is a pot or a sculpture does matter, not because of anything intrinsic within the object, but in the way we speak about it. For as Martin Jay notes, ‘dissolving all structures and systems would result in a … night of endless différance in which all cows are piebald’.6

In 2008 a sculpture again won the Corobrik Award. This time the winning entry was Nicolene Swanepoel’s installation of ten earthenware cattle heads entitled Story Telling.

Swanepoel has long been interested in the significance of cattle in constructing cultural identity. Her master’s dissertation at the University of Johannesburg, entitled ‘Representations of Cattle As Cultural Markers: Towards South African Identities’, explored both the historical and contemporary role of cattle in the spiritual and metaphoric life of the nation.7 In an unpublished text based on her research
Swanepoel wrote:

Cattle … are so interwoven in our culture that they have become powerful symbols of South-African identity. Ever popular in contemporary culture, depictions of and objects relating to cattle abound.8

Swanepoel constructs the ceramic cattle using a two-part press mould to create the basic form of the head, which is then particularised by the various placements of different size horns and ears. The forms are low fired and roughly glazed and then inscribed with a variety of images that included references to South African history as well as contemporary pop culture. In finding her visual language Swanepoel is not afraid to explore a range of glaze and firing opportunities. She does not seem to be governed by the kind of ceramic correctness that regulates the manufacture of pots. Glaze crawls over the shape of the heads, thick here, thin there. Cracks and crackling pock the surface, crusting in places, the surface morphing from rough to smooth. This playful iconoclasm is a strong aspect of the work.

A contender for the main prize at the same exhibition was John Shirley who submitted a number of small vessels.

As I wrote at the time:

Standing head and shoulders above this exhibition of high standard works is John Shirley’s bone china vessels. These works have achieved a level of translucency that combined with freely applied colour on the delicately distorted forms is a technical achievement of note. Yet Shirley’s bowls transcend mere virtuosity. At risk of being accused of anthropomorphising inanimate objects, they are assured and sufficient unto themselves.9

Given the nature of the competition one is forced to draw comparisons between two works, vessel and sculpture, which were in effect contending for the same prize. (Having missed the premier prize Shirley’s vessel was granted an award of merit.) Shirley’s bone china vessel is delicate and small. The soluble salts merge into the body of the pot giving the effect of translucent watercolour.  The vessel is neither utilitarian, narrative nor pictorial. It is object qua object - vessel as pure abstraction. In contrast Swanepoel’s work expresses an externalising impulse by referring to events and objects outside of itself. The forced comparison of these disparate works uncovers the conundrum of which criteria to apply when. In assessing the bone china vessels and the assemblage of cow’s heads is one using the language of contemporary visual art or contemporary ceramics? And, in this case what criteria did the award judge use? Did it matter that Story Telling had glaze faults and Shirley’s vessel did not?

However much one wishes to sweep these distinctions away they persist. It is a negotiated territory that requires the viewer to make adjustments of the sort that allows Swanepoel to defy ceramic convention in Story Telling and which demands that Shirley adhere to its precepts in his bone china vessels.

In a (post) postmodernist world it has come to be accepted that categories and structures have dissolved. Derrida’s concept of différance seems to have filtered into common discourse not least of all in accepting that hard and fast distinctions do not apply between spheres that are internally homogenous.10 Thus the notions of art and craft, sculpture and studio pottery, fine art and ceramics are outdated referents to discrete groups of objects; terms that have little application in today’s world. And who is to challenge the notion when potters such as Grayson Perry occupy the cutting edge of contemporary art in not only winning the Turner Prize (2003) but also conducting/curating the exhibition The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the British Museum in 2011-2012? The dialogue between Perry’s work, dominated by his trade mark vases, and the objects he selected from the museum’s collection achieved an astonishing degree of resonance given that the objects spanned ages and styles and included objects from primitive man, (a late 18C dynasty boat from Egypt) to contemporary pop culture (a Hello Kitty hand towel).11 This exhibition alone would suffice to shatter conventional categories. However Perry’s use of pottery as a subversive medium to introduce content and meaning, often of a bleak sort, into the iconography of ceramics is surely proof in itself that the old boundaries between art and craft, sculpture and painting, ceramics and fine art are irrelevant.

And yet ... by accepting the dissolution of conventional frontiers between homogeneous subsystems of creative endeavour, one is left with the disquieting notion that ceramics has been poorly served. If all systems are the same it follows that the language in which we address issues is the same too. But as we have seen in the example of Swanepoel and Shirley the critical thought processes brought to bear upon a small bone china vessel and a brut sculpture require a shift in perspective, as well as the application of different thought patterns and the employment of specific critical languages. While one can argue that objects can be regarded as undifferentiated in terms of their categorisation, can the same be said of the way we speak about them? At the most elemental level vessels are about interiority, sculptures about displacement of external space. The weight of Shirley’s vessel in the hand (an aspect that contradictorily can be assessed by the eye) is paramount for the pot and of little significance in the case of the cow head. While cracks are not significant markers of technical competence in Swanepoel’s heads they are of premier importance in Shirley’s vessel.

The crack itself became the subject matter of a solo exhibition, Gebroke/geheel (Broken/whole), by Swanepoel in 2010. In this exhibition Swanepoel exhibited a series of pots and ceramic animal heads constructed from shards, those bits of ceramics that are usually discarded. 

Swanepoel attended a course in ceramic restoration in order to learn how to mend ceramics. It is a process she uses with a degree of irony. The pots are not, as in the usual order of things, mended, but created from broken pieces, parts that are not of the original. Employing the metaphor of breakage and restoration Swanepoel references the psychical process of healing (she suffered a near fatal accident). The procedure is also a critique of ceramics techniques. Like all who have undergone formal ceramic training, Swanepoel was subjected to the rigour of the discipline:  a dunted pot has to be discarded, so too a cracked one.  Such works are to be consigned to the dung heap of the rejected. While all these might be useful precepts for casserole dishes, they are not good strictures for a sculptor wrestling for the means to express her thoughts cogently. Swanepoel’s shard works cock a snook at that culture  as well as saying, ‘look I too have been broken and become whole’. To emphasise her point further Swanepoel has etched the places where the shards are joined with gold lustre, a material usually reserved for the finest pots. She thus lays down the gauntlet to the studio pottery tradition, which, as she observes, still dominates the perception of ceramics in South Africa.12

The idea of breakage is pursued in her animal sculptures.  Created whole, a dog sculpture is smashed; gathering the shards Swanepoel remakes the animal emphasising the points of breakage with text and pattern. The dog is not the original but a new whole. This act of breakage, of seeming anger, is also a gesture of despair. It is the animals that suffer the most from our profligate rape of the world.

I too use the crack as part of the meaning of the work. In Diablo 3 (2009-2010) I filled a fortuitous crack in the clay with white cement in order to emphasize the generalised feel of doom and grief of the disembodied head.

In assessing the works of Swanepoel and Shirley, the award judge seems to have made the required critical adjustments.  However on the same exhibition another example more fully exposed the flaw in trying to deal with sculpture and vessels in the same physical and conceptual space. 

Ceramist Drury Brandt, submitted a work entitled Monster.

This was a head and shoulders of a distorted figure. The work alluded to the monstrous dictators of history but in the absence of a plaque announcing the artist’s intention, which the organisers failed to display, the meaning was lost.13 Treated in much the same way as Swanepoel's cattle, Monster is rough and brut. One arm, grotesquely distorted, pokes upwards.

I deliberately made the left arm more ‘truncated’… but in my inexperience overcooked it, making the distortion all the more obvious. The reason for this is that I am left handed, and in line with Jung's dictum 'if you spot it you've got it', means that I too in some way, could be guilty of what I call 'Monsters of History,' whose persecution of humanity in the pursuit of satisfying their outrageous monstrous ego's, defies comprehension.14

In the absence of more defined musculature, the distortion of the arm on the torso does not read ‘true’. In addition Monster was displayed with its back against a window surrounded by vessels. Its frontality was exacerbated by the fact that the viewers had to crane their necks around the displays to see the back part of the sculpture. This work garnered a ‘Highly Commended Award’, an accolade that should rather have been granted to Brandt’s two companion vessels. Here the distortion of the vessel form and the robust treatment of the surfaces is where Brandt’s expressive vigour (and assuredness in ceramic form) finds its true home.

Monster in the context of a ceramic exhibition begs the question: must sculpture and vessel occupy the same conceptual and physical space merely on the basis of a common material?

To confound the matter further on this same exhibition a small tabletop work was submitted by Lynette Morris-Hale. Icarus also had a mother is formally in the ceramic tradition while still reaching over into sculpture. This is apparent in the works externalising impulse of going beyond the abstraction of the vessel to a narrative form while still making a nod to the vessel tradition. Icarus also had a mother used the pot-as-vessel-as-woman in such a witty way that for once one did not need to cringe at the implication of essentialism. 

In acknowledging the presence of Morris-Hale’s work on the show there appears to be an argument for sculpture that comfortably takes on the appellation of ‘ceramic’.

If one concedes this point, a master of this form is undoubtedly Hylton Nel. Nel is known mostly for his free form plates which, much like Perry’s, are used as canvasses for the exploration of a number of concerns not usually associated with ceramics, including homo-erotica. Issues range from The Visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Auschwitz and Birkenau in 2006 to musings on friendship: Champagne for my Real Friends.15


Although Nel refers to himself as an artist/potter his dealer likes to regard him as a conceptual artist:

Perhaps not in the way contemporary art uses the phrase but in the sense that he is an artist who is interested in ideas … [which] touch on many spheres, ranging from the history of decorative arts to literature, visual art and issues in our politicised world.16

Nel’s three-dimensional sculptural works pursue these interests with a sly, playful imagery. These works, which he refers to as ornaments, are small, colourful and figurative, characteristics that seem to warrant the adjective ‘ceramic’. 17

Rather than defying ceramic convention Nel places himself firmly within it:

And the more I become aware of the fact that in ceramic production, hollow wares are the main thing, and then figures and things are a by product, and so I think my work eventually echoes that sort of thing.18

Nel consciously references historical antecedents including Staffordshire figurines. In Nuestra Señora de los Gattos (2010) the artist appears to portray himself as an anthropomorphised cat-in-drag. Nuestra Señora de los Gattos is a small mantle piece size ‘ornament’. Painting under a transparent glaze Nel has given the cat knowing features. She is in a green frock, hands demurely cupped against her breast.

On the other end of the continuum from the small, glazed, spectrum is my own sculpture, which (quite consciously) flouts ceramic convention, not least of all in its enlarged scale. Clay, the material from which the work is constructed seldom plays a part in the meaning of the piece. An exception is Head to Head (2007). In this 3.6m high sculpture two opposing materials literally bump heads. The bottom of the pair of life-size figures is cast from bronze – the top, upside down figure, from ceramic. This configuration quite literally inverts the traditional hierarchy of materials.

In recent years I have added cementatious products to the surfaces of my sculptures after firing in order to create texture and colour. Further elements such as steel continue the construction of the forms both physically and conceptually. Such is the work Mother-Other (2011) made as part of The Alice Sequence.19

However while I frequently defy ceramic practice, to pretend that I ignore it all together is a sophistry. One convention that I have employed is similar to Swanepoel’s use of moulds to replicate form.20 Mother-Other’s ceramic body is cast from an original The Mother, from whom a mould was made that allowed the replication of her form.

Replication is a strategy I have employed in a key work in The Alice Sequence, Cradle (2010 – 2012).

In this installation a mould taken from a small plastic doll has allowed the duplication of a thousand armless babies which, when laid out on the floor, create a ‘field’ of packed bodies. Like Swanepoel’s cattle heads each baby is particularised by the placement of head and legs. The heads are tilted at different angles. The legs, which are freely modelled, take on attitudes of repose or activity. The surfaces of the babies are variously treated with non-fired coloured oxides, sand, paint, sealant or cementatious   materials. The babies share a common origin, but much like in real life, each is individualised. Nevertheless all the babies are armless, signifying a universal helplessness. Does this say something about population explosion? Perhaps. What is significant though, is that the conceptual underpinning of the installation is different from the embodied narratives contained in the ceramic works such as Nel’s or Hale’s pot-as-woman.

‘In the dark are all cows piebald?’ asks Martin Jay in a critique of Derrida’s concept of différance.21   While the shattering of boundaries and the deferment of meaning implied by the term différance has to be lauded, he has a point. Not all cows are the same. The language we use to address objects of fired clay cannot remain amorphous and undifferentiated.  Lack of differentiation does not imply sameness. Cows do vary, even in the dark. It requires an alert mind to negotiate what is in essence a continuum of objects: sculpture, ceramic sculpture, contemporary vessels, utilitarian pottery.22 By being alert to variations, however tenuous these may be, we can negotiate our way in the (post) postmodern dark. We can begin to distinguish different patterns on the piebald cows. 

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To return to the article click the relevant note number

1 Dissolving all structures and systems would result in a ‘night of endless différance in which all cows are piebald’. Martin Jay in I. Hoesterey (ed.), Zeitgeist in Babel, Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1991, p.108.
2 Founded in 1972, Ceramics Southern Africa is the official representative body of potters in Southern Africa ( 
3 R. Lapping Sellars, ‘From Behind the Ironic Curtain’, National Ceramics Quarterly, no.10, 1989, pp. 23 – 25.
4 Wilma Cruise, Without Judgement (1992), three ceramic busts with metal inserts.
5 R. Lapping Sellars, ‘This little potty went to market and this little market’s gone to hell’, National Ceramics Quarterly, no. 22, December 1992, pp. 19 - 20, p.19.
6 Jay in Hoesterey, Zeitgeist in Babel, p.108.
7 Nicolene Swanepoel, ‘Representations of Cattle as Cultural Markers: Towards South African Identities’, Master’s dissertation at the University of Johannesburg, unpublished, 2011.
8 Nicolene Swanepoel, ‘Hybrid Herd’ 2011, unpublished article, p.1. 
9 Wilma Cruise, ‘The 2008 Corobrik National Ceramics Exhibition’, National Ceramics Quarterly, no. 85, Spring 2008, pp.11–13, p.11.
10 ‘[Différance] insists that signs always refer to yet more signs ad infinitum, and that there is no ultimate referent or foundation’, J. Reynolds, ‘Jacques Derrida 1930-2004’, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010,
11 Grayson Perry, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, London, The British Museum Press, 2011, see p.182 and p.112.
12 Nicolene Swanepoel interviewed by Wilma Cruise, 12 April 2012.
13 Drury Brandt interviewed by Wilma Cruise, 9 April 2012.
14 Drury Brandt email message to Wilma Cruise, 6 May 2012.
15 M. Stevenson, (ed.) Hylton Nel A Curious World, Johannesburg, Jacana Media Pty Ltd. 2010, see p.41 and p. 65.
16 Ibid, p.7.
17 Ibid, p.87.
18 See
19 The Alice Sequence explores the nature of the animal/human interface within the metaphoric matrix of Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. 
20 The use of the multiple is also a convention in art. However the specific use of moulds seems to belong more clearly to ceramic practice.
21 Jay in Hoesterey, Zeitgeist in Babel, p.108.
22 I refer here to Wayne Higby’s definition of a contemporary vessel as ‘… an object that presents the formal essence of a pot exaggerated to reveal a personal and artistic vision uninhibited by pragmatic issues of function’, see Wayne Higby, ‘The Vessel: Denying Function’, Ceramics Monthly, December 1986 pp.25-26.

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Not all Cows are Piebald • Issue 14

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