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Rorke’s Drift Art and Craft Centre: the remarkable legacy of the potter Dinah Molefe

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 second artefact, by Dinah Molefe. READ THE ARTICLE ABOUT HENRIËTTE NGAKO HERE.

DITSONG Museums South Africa ceramics Dinah Molef
A ‘Rorke’s Drift’ circular-shaped stoneware vase hand built (coiled) by Dinah Molefe. It is highly decorated with both applied amasumpa clay, semicircle stipple patterns and bold geometric motifs (zigzags, and circles), slip painted in iron and black under a reduced kaolin matt glaze. PHOTO Jade Curgenven

The Evangelical Lutheran Church Art and Craft Centre at Rorke’s Drift, Natal, was started in 1962 by Peder and Ulla Gowenius. This arose out of a committee formed in 1961 in Stockholm, Sweden, for the advancement of African art and craft. As a result of this initiative, Peder and Ulla Gowenius were sent to South Africa to work at the Ceza Mission Hospital, Zululand. 
     Moving to the scene of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift a year later, the Centre was instrumental in developing a black fine arts identity in South Africa during a period when access to formal training in the fine arts was largely denied to black communities by the government. One of the only other arts schools available to black artists in the country at the time was the Polly Street Art School in Soweto.
     Initially craft and market-driven by European buyers, Rorke’s Drift expanded to the fine arts disciplines under the directorship of Jules and Ada van de Vijver. The van de Vijver’s introduced printmaking, photography, etching and weaving to the Centre and produced more than 80 artists, including some of southern Africa’s most renowned artists and printmakers, for example Azaria Mbatha, John Muafangejo, Dan Rakgoathe and Bongiwe Dhlomo. The Centre closed in 1982.
     Although there was no plan to build a pottery workshop at the time, Kerstin Olsson (now Kerstin Wasserthal), arrived at Rorke’s Drift in August 1964 to begin to explore the idea of teaching ceramics at Rorke’s Drift. 
     The Pottery Workshop started in 1968 with Danish supervisors and four founding throwers. Several ceramists from the neighbouring Shiyane-Nqutu region, Dinah Molefe and several women of her family, joined the Pottery Workshop from the start as skilled hand builders, accustomed to using traditional Zulu and Sotho coiling methods in the making of traditional beer pots. 
     Marietjie van der Merwe, who had been assisting the Centre, proved to be influential in setting up the studio. She improved the clay recipe and built a new large oil-firing kiln when she arrived in 1973, and continued to mentor the studio’s ceramists until her death in 1992. 

DITSONG Museums South Africa ceramics Dinah Molef
Picture of Dinah Molefe painting a hand built ’ikamba’ shape with a slip. Taken from the book Potters of Southern Africa by G. Clark and L. Wagner

     Van der Merwe taught the men more about thrown forms and introduced a glaze to the studio. Dinah Molefe taught the women of the studio Zulu hand-building techniques; they developed their own style of work while still using the methods of building taught to them. Although there was a clear gender division in the ceramic studio, with the men throwing and the women hand-building, there was also a clear similarity between the women and men’s work.
     The potters at Rorke’s Drift were exposed to many different artistic influences, both by the Swedish artists in residence and by various South African artists who visited the studios. 
     Dinah, who was born in 1906, was the senior of the potters and one of the leading women potters at the Centre from 1969 to 1982.
     The potter’s surname, Molefe, is Basotho in origin and is indicative of Dinah being from a Hlubi cultural background – an immigrant Sotho community which had settled in northern KwaZulu-Natal in the early to mid-1800s, bringing with them Basotho cultural practices handed down from generation to generation. These practices differed from the Zulu cultural practices and included a strong visual tradition representing both the human and animal forms and the Basotho heritage of family animal totems.
     The Rorke’s Drift Art and Craft Centre aimed to create employment for many women and men in the area, and worked towards self-sufficiency and raising standards of living, while developing skills. The Centre also ensured that it developed with the changing society. 

DITSONG Museums South Africa ceramics Dinah Molef
The unglazed base is marked with the name of the potter: D MOLEFE; the Rorke’s Drift stylised ‘tree’ symbol and the following numbering system: Z (last firing); 18 (number of the item of that firing in the kiln); 78 (year when item was made: 1978). PHOTO Jade Curgenven

     Work by potters at Rorke’s Drift is unique in its social significance and design. It is important to understand the Centre in terms of issues of tribal social inhibitions and gender, which had a noticeable effect on the pottery. Thrown pieces were made by the male potters, adopting the introduced technology of the Swedish missionary studio potters, thereby overcoming the gendered association with coil-built forms. The women did not work on the wheel, remaining within the confines of a pot coiling tradition that goes back centuries. The male potters at Rorke’s Drift were more adventurous in their design work, which is detailed and often narrative. The women did not stay far from the geometric patterns with which they are familiar or from the Zulu and Basotho custom of applied design and sgraffito. The gendered work-division in the studio’s ceramics – women coiling, men throwing – has been maintained to the present.
     This vase is one of only a small number of Molefe’s work remaining in our country. It is a good example of the traditional pot coiling of the local people combined with Western technology (glazed stoneware) and therefore a significant piece in the DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History’s collection. 
     The geometric motifs on the vase appear often in Zulu pottery, basketry and beadwork. The modelled nodules of clay resemble the amasumpa found on Zulu pottery. 
     The interaction between the Swedish, American and South African teachers and the Zulu and Basotho students in an African context made for a complex of artistic exchanges and cross-cultural influences.

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