WILHELM VAN RENSBURG, senior art specialist at Strauss & Co, throws the ball of contemporary ceramics into the centre of the potter’s wheel and finds a star.




WILHELM VAN RENSBURG, senior art specialist at Strauss & Co, throws the ball of contemporary ceramics into the centre of the potter’s wheel and finds a star.

A pot is elevated to the realm of art if the potter makes it primarily for that reason, and it will then be judged as art, and not as a well-designed household utensil.”[1]

This quote by Frieda Harmsen folds, rolls and kneads the essential value of contemporary South African ceramics; the potential for a masterpiece in a chunk of clay.

Contemporary ceramic art has always been half hidden. You may stumble upon it in the hallway on your way to the library in the William Humphreys Art Gallery in Kimberley, or come across it somewhere in the far corner on the top floor of the Tatham Gallery in Pietermaritzburg. Looking carefully, you may even spot it in an invisible glass cabinet at the Pretoria Art Museum.

Contemporary ceramics pieces are rarely a focal point in the main exhibition halls of galleries and museums. In South Africa, they were often neglected because even the most seasoned art lovers did not know what to look out for.

That changed in November 2020, when an auction by Strauss & Co put the spotlight on often misunderstood and overlooked South African works of art.

The field of contemporary ceramics is usually considered applied, decorative or even craft art… but now shines as a fully-fledged art form in its own right, with increased attention from local and international curators, serious collectors and aficionados.

Historically, in terms of ceramics in Southern Africa, porcelain was mainly used by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) for plates and commemorative ware, while ancient earthenware pots have been discovered at various archaeological sites across the region, including at Mapungubwe.

Contemporary South African ceramics started emerging in the 1960s after distinguishing itself from historical ceramics and heritage vessels. The movement was, in part, driven by studios and individual artists, such as Andrew Walford and Esias Bosch, who is considered the father of the South African contemporary ceramics movement. This category also includes the work of artists best-known for their work as painters, sculptors or printmakers. Artists like Deborah Bell, Robert Hodgins and Hannatjie van der Wat also produce ceramics as part of their overall art practice.

Commercial ware from the smaller artisanal potteries and studios like Cullinan Refractories and Olifantsfontein Potteries (Linn Ware), Boksburg East Pottery (Lucia Ware), Kalahari Studio (sought-after Kalahari Ware) and Grahamstown Pottery (Drostdy Ware), as well as more mass-produced designer utilitarian ware (manufactured by Continental China and National Ceramic Industries in the 1960s) also fall in this category.

This form of production can be seen in the William Kentridge mirrored espresso and cappuccino cups that were produced by Illy in 2008. One only needs to look at the work of ceramicists like Nesta Nala, Ian Garrett, Juliet Armstrong, Andile Dyalvane, Zizipho Poswa and Clive Sithole to see how contemporary ceramic media makes use of new and exciting interpretations of traditional forms.

Eugene Hön, Corné Joubert, Ruan Hoffmann, John Newdigate and Molelekoa Simon Masilo, on the other hand, show how classical forms and shapes can be reinvented, with highly innovative sculptural ceramic pieces as a result.

In South Africa, the word ‘contemporary’ was first applied to ceramics by F.G.E. Nilant in his 1963 book, Contemporary Pottery in South Africa.

In this text, Nilant distinguished between the ceramic artist working in a studio and the artists of the machine age, who mass-produce their wares in factories.

The term contemporary, therefore, assumes a dual meaning. On the one hand, it refers to how the ceramic arts relate to their own time – an aspect significantly augmented by the 1974 publication of Potters of Southern Africa by Garth Clark and Lynne Wagner. On the other hand, however, it has to do with the production of ‘modern’ ceramics as part of the general thrust of technological and economic developments. The latter is associated with the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath.

These two books stand in sharp contrast with other publications of the time. William Fehr’s Treasures at the Castle of Good Hope, published in 1966, documents the castle’s collection of historical ‘chinaware’ in great detail, as do various other books and journal articles written by academics from the University of Pretoria and the University of the Witwatersrand. These writings also focus on excavated earthenware found at the Mapungubwe archaeological site, situated at the junction where South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe meet.

The history of the smaller potteries is, in turn, well-documented by the catalogues at ceramics exhibitions. The Women of Olifantsfontein: South African Studio Ceramics (1991) by Melanie Hillebrand, and South African Studio Ceramics: A Selection from the 1950s (1998) by Wendy Gers are two such examples.

More recent publications, such as Gers’s impressive Scorched Earth: 100 Years of Southern African Potteries (2015) and Alexander Duffey, Riana Heymans and Jan Middeljans’s Olifantsfontein Potteries: 1907–1962 (2018) are valuable new additions to the body of existing literature.

In a sense, contemporary South African ceramics are located at the confluence of global trade routes and pre-colonial and colonial cultural exchanges. These ceramics draw on the traditions of trade between East and West, forged over more than 400 years, while reflecting the ancient links between North Africa, Europe and later the British Isles, and incorporating the historic earthenware heritage of the continent’s south.

Today, the very fine white porcelain used extensively in the East finds its contemporary expression in the paper-thin vessels of Katherine Glenday and Juliet Armstrong. The shapes of the ancient traditional Iron Age African pottery and the earthenware pots and clay figurines found at Mapungubwe are reflected in the work of artists like Ian Garrett, Molelekoa Simon Masilo, Nesta Nala and Andile Dyalvane. The animal figurines of the time find modern expression in the quirky cats and ceramic hares of Hylton Nel and his protégé, Nico Masemola, as well as the 13 stoneware African animals, both realistic and imaginary, that constitute Ann Marais’s eco-conscious twenty-first century Last Supper.

The North/South ceramic axis is as evident in the work of studio ceramicists from the 1960s, such as Esias Bosch, Peter Hayes (producing Thaba Bosigo ware), Charles Gotthard Jacobs, Tim Morris, Hyme Rabinowitz, Marietjie van der Merwe, Hannatjie van der Wat and Andrew Walford. These artists drew on the work of Bernard Leach and the strong studio pottery tradition in Britain during the 1930s, 40s and 60s, who in turn were inspired by Japanese masters such as Shōji Hamada, whose exploration of the spiritual qualities in ceramic art had a lasting influence. Many South African ceramic artists studied under these masters and some even settled in the UK to be close to the heart of the movement.

The 1970s and 80s saw contemporary South African ceramic art turning professional, with the establishment of associations, the staging of academic exhibitions and the founding of special interest publications. Ceramics were no longer seen as purely utilitarian craft objects; the medium got promoted to a powerful means of expression for contemporary artists. Ceramics Southern Africa, first founded in 1972 as the Association of Potters of Southern Africa (APSA), is the official representative body of the region’s potters. Its objective is to promote ceramics on the subcontinent by raising the standard of training. It increases the range and quality of work produced and fosters a greater interest and appreciation of ceramic pieces among museum curators, collectors and the general public.

This is done by presenting regular skills development workshops and organising annual regional and national exhibitions. The organisation’s mission statement indicates that its purpose is “to maintain a representative forum for the encouragement and fostering of the art and craft of ceramics in Southern Africa. The field encompasses all relevant processes that add value to clay”.[2]

The Corobrick Collection, housed in the Pretoria Art Museum, is one of the most significant collections of contemporary ceramics in the country. It grew from the collection, first built by Stellenbosch Farmers Winery, of prize-winning pieces from the APSA national and regional exhibitions that they sponsored from 1977.

In 1982 Corobrick acquired the collection and took over the exhibition sponsorship. The collection reflects a wide range of ceramics over a period of more than forty years. It includes work from rural potters working with time-honoured traditional forms to innovative studio ceramics and cutting-edge experimental contemporary art pieces. The collection continues to grow, with new additions acquired from exhibitions and pieces contributed by members.

A number of major exhibitions have aided the growing prestige and visibility of contemporary South African ceramics. These include the Recent SA Ceramics at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town and at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 1985, as well as Clay+ at Unisa in 1988.

Major publications such as Wilma Cruise’s lavishly illustrated Contemporary Ceramics in South Africa (1991), which display all the expressive shapes of ceramics, both utilitarian and fantastic – such as the teapot, the ‘canvas’, the plate, the sculpture, the creative table and the ceramic environment – were eagerly snapped up by enthusiasts.

Two glossy publications that showcase the phenomenal success and creativity of the Ardmore Ceramic Art Studio, An African Discovery (1998), and We are Because of Others (2012), have brought the narrative of this unique co-operative studio firmly into the public arena.

One of the most impressive publications in this field is the international survey of 100 of the most important contemporary clay and ceramic artists, Vitamin C: Clay + Ceramic in Contemporary Art (2017), edited by Louisa Elderton and Rebecca Morrill. In it, the impressive South African artist Marlene Steyn is included among other artists of international repute.

A focus on historical and contemporary ceramics is also increasingly evident in the choice of topics of Masters and PhD researchers at major South African universities. Ian Garrett pioneered the serious consideration of contemporary ceramics at an academic level with a traditional KwaZulu-Natal idiom in his 1997 dissertation on Nest Nala, the matriarch of a family of potters spanning three generations. Rika Stockenström’s 2014 dissertation studied The South African Contemporary Ceramic Collection at the William Humphreys Art Gallery: 1984–2009. Ronald Watt’s 2016 PhD thesis at Unisa, South African Studio Pottery of the Later Twentieth Century and its Anglo-Oriental Epithet, makes for a significant contribution to the study of this tradition.

A growing international interest in contemporary South African ceramics is noticeable, with local ceramic artists gaining welcome exposure and now being routinely included in major exhibitions with an African focus. Works by Clive Sithole and Nesta and Ntombi Nala were part of The Global Africa Project at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York in 2010, along with ceramics by Ardmore Studio, MUD Studio and Zenzulu.

Work by local artists also featured in Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design at the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, and also in 2015 at the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, in particular Lucinda Mudge, Andile Dyalvane and Zizipho Poswa.

Contemporary South African ceramics is one of the most exciting sectors of the local art environment, although the financial entry level for serious collectors is still lower for ceramics than it is for traditional ‘fine art’ such as oil paintings and bronze sculptures.

The potential, however, is huge and ceramics’ appeal as an asset class is skyrocketing. With growing national and international recognition and its newfound centre-stage position in the art world, the sky is the limit for contemporary ceramics and the South African artists putting a new spin on the most ancient of crafts.

 “What’s brilliant about ceramics is the range of techniques and the enormously rich history which [can be drawn on] for inspiration – you have everything that a painter has but also most of the stuff a sculptor has and all those very particular techniques and effects that you can only get with ceramics.”[3]

“The appeal of clay’s material working processes [resides in it] being rolled, ripped, pulled, prodded, perforated, squeezed, poked, kneaded, fingered, folded and fragmented, its tactility and bodily resonance [of] artists using dexterous fingers and palms to activate the earth.”[4] 

“And I throw the ball of clay into the centre, wet my hands and I am making a jar now pulling the clay up with the knuckle of my right hand on the outside, three fingers of my left tensed inside to support, as the walls grow taller and the volume changes like an exhalation, something being said.”[5]


Eylene Clifford,

Lisa Ringwood,

Maia Lehr-Sacks,

Sonja Kastner,

Ben Orkin,

Esias Bosch

Hylton Nel

Marlene Steyn,

Look out for:

Carine Terreblanche, Colijn Strydom, , Eva Shuman, Gabrielle Kruger, Geena Wilkinson, Georgina Gratrix, Githan Coopoo, Gretchen Crots, Jeanne Hoffman, Jo Roets, Kamyar Bineshtarigh, Karlien van Rooyen, Kathy Robins, Ledelle Moe, Abraham Kritzman, Angels Miralda Tena, Martine Jackson, Moshe Sello & Mthulisi Ncube (Ardmore), Pierre le Riche, Simphiwe Buthelezi, Somandla Ntshalintshali &Siyabonga Mabaso (Ardmore), Stephané Conradie, Zizipho Poswa Lucinda Mudge, John Newdigate, Ian Garrett, Ruan Hoffman, Andile Dyalvane, Ann Marais and Simon Masilo


[1] Frieda Harmsen (1985) Looking at South African Art: A guide to the study and appreciation of art, Pretoria: Van Schaik, page 145.

[2] https://www.ceramicssa.co.za

[3] Robin Cawdron-Stewart (2017) ‘Grayson Perry: An artist who happens to make ceramics’, 31 August 2017, www.sothebys.com

[4] Louisa Elderton and Rebecca Morrill (2017) in Vitamin C: Clay and Ceramic in Contemporary Art. London; Phaidon, page 9.

[5] Edmund de Waal (2015) The White Road: A Journey Into Obsession. London: Vintage: page 4.