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Cultural expression captured in sculpted clay: a personal view

Every year, DITSONG: Museums of South Africa (DMSA) celebrates women in the arts during the month of August. What follows is a personal reflection by Corine Meyer, curator of the Ceramics and Precious Metal Collection at the DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History, on two pieces in the collection, one by Henriëtte Ngako and the other by Dinah Molefe, and Meyer’s justification for why these pieces are an important part of the collection. Meyer explores the first artefact, by Henriëtte Ngako. READ THE ARTICLE ON DINAH MOLEFE HERE.

DITSONG Museums South Africa ceramics Henriette Ngako
Henriëtte Ngako, Untitled sculpture, 2005. Hammanskraal. Unglazed low-fired ceramic art-work, constructed in the form of a totem sculpture. PHOTO Jade Curgenven

Life is about freedom and dreams. This was my first impression when I entered the Pretoria Art Museum in 1991, having spotted a Henriëtte Ngako work that was proudly exhibited as the winning piece of the sculptural ceramics section of an APSA (Association of Potters of Southern Africa) exhibition. I didn’t know it at the time, but the thread of an awareness of her work was formed, and she continued to captivate me with her unusual combinations of animal figures in a totem-like fashion. 
     My second thought was: we just happen to live in a great era for design and Ngako has demonstrated this excellently. Her artwork is about the freedom to express oneself and to celebrate one’s memories and rich heritage. Anything she could dream up, she sculpted in clay. 
     From humble beginnings in 1985 as an assistant to the ceramist Tineke Meijer (who involved her in her pottery studio, giving her the opportunity to create her own work), she has elevated the level of collectable art. Ngako has gained widespread recognition. Original in form and decoration, her work has sold at galleries throughout the world and enhances modern interiors. 
     In 2005, I visited her at her studio in Pretoria and purchased two of her sculptures for the DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History’s collection. I chose this particular piece (left) because of its intricate patterns in rich earthy colours and the harmonious arrangement of animal figures (bird, lizard, bull and horses). The marriage of traditional craft and contemporary design sensibilities are really beautiful. I motivated the purchase as an example of ceramics that have significantly contributed to the renaissance of ceramics in South Africa.
Characteristic features of her work are the sgraffito decoration (a ceramics technique whereby clay surface is incised to create a design), and the use of oxides and coloured slips for her painting. Both techniques are used to create figurative imagery, which echoes the modelled forms. 
     What I like about Ngako’s ceramics is that her work offers more than a story. It also gives a personal message: an insight into the lives and the nature of society she remembers from her childhood. Her sculptures reflect animals she observed around her as a child, and are also drawn from the stories and myths elders told her. The paintwork on the pieces and the divergent colours used are influenced by the house decoration in the Tswana village she was born in near Rustenburg. 
     It was in this village that she was taught the basic techniques of coiling and constructing forms of clay. She was inspired by watching her grandmother (a traditional potter), but has developed beyond this to her own characteristic figurative ceramics, which are closer to sculpture. She did not draw on traditions alone, but created a new identity that expresses freedom of design, pattern and colour. 
     This piece has a naïve quality, like most of Ngako’s work. Its shapes, its rich earthy colours and its creatures have a powerful and expressive form. I find her use of colour, intricate design, symbols and elements of nature in this work both beautiful and fascinating. There is no fuss – it is honest, bold, unusual, ornamental, powerful and architectural. I just adore it.

To keep up-to-date with the latest arts and culture news in South Africa, purchase the August 2019 issue of Creative Feel or subscribe to our monthly magazine from only R180.00 to R365.00 per year! SUBSCRIBE HERE!

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