Pottery and ceramics are part of our daily lives and have been for tens of thousands of years. In South Africa, they remain vital to the cultural expression and rituals of many. For others, they are a way to consciously support the South African economy, to bring beauty to a home, or to make that daily tea or coffee a bit more special.
The Kim Sacks Gallery in Parkwood is a space to find these artefacts, to learn about their creators and cultural practices across the globe. Entering the Gallery immediately feels like a privileged and sacred experience. On every available space sits an object that has been carefully selected both for its aesthetic appeal and its history or journey – which owner Kim Sacks or the Gallery staff will happily share. Each artefact has been specifically chosen for its authenticity – this is no curio shop with quasi-African style pieces, these are artworks that have been thoughtfully chosen based on Sacks’ decades of work in the industry. Sacks says that ‘our creativity is inextricably linked to our spirit’ and it is evident that she has imbued the space with pieces of her heart.
The Gallery houses a comprehensive range of objects and sculptures from a broad spectrum of raw materials, including ceramics, basketry, textiles, beads, furniture, metalwork, and wood, all of which are eye-catching and cutting-edge.
Kim Sacks is one of South Africa’s foremost ceramicists and instructors and mentors in the craft of working with clay. She began her clay practice at the age of 12 at the Braamfontein Recreation Centre. Having decided to pursue pottery further, Sacks then took up an apprenticeship with an American potter and spent two-and-a-half years on a kibbutz in the Middle East that was well known for producing pottery. Having left South Africa at 19 in 1976 just before the student uprisings, Sacks says, ‘I was quite young when I left. I wanted to see the world and I wanted to study craft. I wanted to understand why people made things, and examine the origins of objects through time, and through culture.’
Sacks then formalised her training by studying at the Danish School of Design – which was one of the finest design training institutions in Europe. Due to the cultural boycott at the time, Sacks says, ‘It wasn’t that easy to convince the Danes to give me a scholarship, but they always said to me, we’re going to teach you and hopefully once you have studied here, you will return to your country and you’ll educate people and you’ll be part of a movement that will be involved in change and shifting perceptions and the circumstances of some people.’
The school attracted Sacks because, aside from its reputation, she ‘loved the Scandinavian aesthetic of simple lines and minimalistic forms and truth to form, function and to material.’ Reflecting, she says, ‘it was an extraordinary gift, that students were given the chance to be taught by practitioners who were leaders in their fields, knowing, in time, that those students would go into the world and be the instruments of the change they so longed to see in their worlds.’
Before returning to South Africa, Sacks traversed the globe. ‘I am Sagittarius, I’m a gypsy… and I love language, I love the notion of insight into and understanding different cultures. I lived and travelled extensively, Central America, South America, Asia. I taught ceramics in the US, I didn’t spend that much time in Europe. Other than Denmark, and Greece, and I spent some time in Germany and a short time through Central Europe.’
Sacks describes arriving back in South Africa in 1986 as ‘coming forward’. At the time, ‘ceramics was really in its infancy in this country.’ Ceramics Southern Africa was established in 1974 and Sacks was part of the first group of founding members. She established her now world-renowned pottery school that same year in Yeoville in a building, ‘which was a lovely space. A collective of architects had renovated it quite beautifully and I wanted to set up a training programme where I could teach disadvantaged people and give apprenticeships. I had no money in those days, having been travelling, but I had a huge dream and was full of passion. I wanted to open a space which encompassed a workshop and a school and a gallery, that was able to show people how craft was made. And by shining a light on the processes, actually grew people’s insights and understanding and inclination to support those crafts.
‘I was really quite radical in my activities. That was long before apartheid ceased and I worked extensively in rural areas. Sometimes there were question marks, people kept saying, “are you really doing craft?” But for me, craft was political. It was an activity that made a difference, that had the ability to take rural women and put food in their children’s mouths, even if it was small amounts… it wasn’t huge, but it definitely made a difference. That’s been my philosophy ever since.’Post-1994, when the demographics of Yeoville began to shift and clients began to feel weary about coming to the area, Sacks began thinking of finding a new space.
‘I inherited a little bit of money and decided to build a gallery in a place where tourists and locals alike could access us without difficulty and with greater ease. Jan Smuts Avenue in Parkwood proved to be a logical place at that time. So I bought a property in 1998, a very ugly house, and my husband and I set about designing a gallery. We made a cardboard model and designed and built the space.’ The iconic adobe-style building that is today one of the bastions of the Parkwood ‘gallery strip’ was the second gallery to call that section of Jan Smuts Avenue home.
Today the Kim Sacks Gallery is thriving and represents numerous rural and urban crafters, some of whom live in remote corners of Africa. A huge drawcard for visitors is not just the variety but the authenticity of the pieces. ‘It is a commercial space, but the premise for doing things was to highlight the extraordinary makers and designers in South Africa. Showing that there was integrity in the objects and products. I work with many community projects across the continent, both rural and urban. I like to know that in my small way, over the years, I have made a difference to some people’s lives; that gives me huge pleasure.’ With Sacks’ decades of working in the field and her enormous network of crafters, one knows that anything you find in the Gallery will be of the absolute highest quality. ‘I look for work that is authentic, where it’s very clear to me that they’re exploring their own creativity. I like simplicity. I like things that are true to material and with that spirit, their beauty and integrity are felt by the onlooker. To make something exquisite and simple, you’ve got to have huge skill, and many years of practice. I’m very specific, and it’s not purely an aesthetic thing, it’s a very personal thing.
‘I always say, if I had to close the door this afternoon, and live with everything that’s inside, it’s fine because I’ve chosen things that give me huge pleasure and enthral me,’ says Sacks.
The Gallery ‘has a persona, and people who come there respect that and love that and, in a way, rely on me. There is an aesthetic thread of connectedness between the pieces, the old and the contemporary pieces, juxtaposed next to each other, they need to talk to each other and dance… my clients seem to like finding this mixture of objects from different places, and different times, all with a thread of connectedness.
‘People use the Gallery as a museum, they come and they bring visitors just to look, they can touch things that in other countries are in museums behind glass. It offers a unique experience.’
Through the Gallery and Ceramics School, Sacks has been instrumental in the careers of many of the country’s top crafters. ‘There are many people I’ve taught who are very well known in the country. From Deborah Bell to a plethora of different makers in different areas who’ve been through my school. In the beginning, I used to run full-time apprenticeship programmes, which I don’t do anymore, but those were extremely successful. They really helped me to participate in creating what is now a very dynamic and very well known ceramic movement.’
The ceramic movement is thriving in South Africa, says Sacks, with many makers and designers selling works on the international market. ‘I do think that craft is the new luxury in the world that we reside in currently and it’s going to be more and more so.’ She says that there has been a tremendous upsurge over the past couple of decades. ‘Definitely from when I got off the plane in 1986 or from the 1970s when [Ceramics Southern Africa] started. It’s definitely grown and expanded and we have a voice. Now with Instagram, people just look at what you do and like it. They don’t look at what country you come from, so there’s kind of a unique universal seamless family, where groups are attracted to the visuals of something.’
But, she adds, ‘it’s not easy to make a living from ceramics. It’s not easy to make a living from our hands, full-stop. I think one has to do many other things in parallel creative activities.
‘People make because they cannot not make. People make because it’s a physiological need which relates to their wellbeing… I always tell people, if you leave this place with a basket or a handwoven piece of cloth, know that whatever you’ve paid for it doesn’t compensate the person for the hours and the love that they’ve imbued this piece with, it’s their gift to you. And you are the custodian, you are not the owner. And that is really the way it is, it’s a very sacred thing.’
Plan a trip to the Kim Sacks Gallery, as a collector, or a rite of passage, or even if you’re just in need of some inspiration. Sacks’ advice for first-time buyers is: ‘Talk to yourself… first thing is: have a conversation with yourself. Second thing is: walk around, and see what talks to you. It’s a spirit thing. It really is a spirit thing. Our creativity is linked inextricably to our heart, so if you walk around, you might see a blue object that possibly reminded you of your granny.
‘I don’t do well with investment bankers who come in and say, “what’s your most expensive piece?” I am not good at that, because for me, it is not about that. I tell them, “you walk around, do a recce, see what talks to you, and then let’s have a conversation and I’ll explain about the particular piece that resonates with you.” I think if someone comes in and needs a little salt spoon, they’re making a great investment because that’s what they need at this particular time. Their salt bowl needs a spoon and it will enhance every day of their life. To me, that’s a great investment. I can share with them information about a particular object. Who made it and where it comes from, why it looks like that possibly, but ultimately, the decision is a very personal one.’
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