A Serendipitous Opportunity

A Serendipitous Opportunity

After returning home from a week teaching at Arrowmont School of Crafts in Gatlinburg, TN, I saw an announcement for a woodfire conference in North Carolina. I learned that acclaimed South African ceramicist Clive Sithole and two siblings from the Nala family, renowned Zulu potters also from South Africa, had just been there demonstrating their craft. There was no way I could've caught the conference, since I was busy teaching and traveling during that time, but I felt so disappointed that I had missed such an incredible event.

About a week later, I was going through my emails over morning coffee and saw a message from a new ceramics friend, Sara Truman, a potter who runs a community studio called Studio TM in Gainesvile, FL. She had sent me a flyer for a demonstration by Jabulile Nala happening the very next day at the University of Florida's Harn Museum of Art. I instantly booked a room in Gainesville that night for my mother and I. My mom was a docent at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art for twenty years, so I knew she'd be interested in Nala's story and process.

There were probably about thirty of us present for the Jabulile Nala's demo. It was three hours in duration, so the quietude and focus at the beginning slowly melted into chatting, snacking and interaction among Nala, presenter Susan Bernstein and the audience. When she started her first pot, she said she tells her mind and heart what size the pot will be and her hands will follow. She grabbed a lump of clay without weighing to begin her piece, a medium sized beer vessel. She switched back and forth between English and Zulu while she worked and we were told she was being exceptionally chatty during her demo that day. She usually prefers to work in silence while Susan answers questions and explains her process.

As Nala builds her pots, she grabs a lump of clay and kneads it with both hands before making a coil and attaching it to the base. She said that was her favorite part—not building and watching a pot form from her hands. Simply squeezing clay between her hands gives her the most joy of any step in the building process. I loved witnessing this so much because this is what I try to communicate to people who take my classes. Beyond worries about technique, there should be a joy in connecting with the material itself, regardless of your technical limitations and regardless of the outcome. If you have a joyful relationship clay, the technical abilities you seek will come to you organically over time. I identified so much with Nala's approach and process.

During the course of the demo, Nala switched from standing to sitting, which is how she normally works and is more comfortable for her. Once she sat on the ground, she said she felt her granny come to her. She started making pots at the age of 11, forty years ago, by watching and working alongside her mom and grandma. What a privilege to be able to witness a process that has been passed down through the ancestors. 

I have given a lot of though to the difference between a traditional way of learning a craft, through information and processes passed down, versus Western academic ways of learning. I've been considering the ideas of a communal expression--one tied to a cultural identity, shared by many--and individual expression, one person's idiosyncratic approach to a medium. I wonder how these different modes of learning and creating can flow together. I also long to be part of a clay lineage. Even though I am an only child, removed from most of my family in Nigeria, I've been raised with the idea that no (wo)man is an island. We are stronger together and we stand on the shoulders of all those who came before us. Figuring out how to be a part of a clay lineage as a solo studio potter has been a guiding question over the past couple of years.

Toward the end of the demonstration, after over three hours of sitting in a folding chair, I decided to stretch my back and walk around the galleries. That was my first time at The Harn Museum of Art and I was impressed. I saw an El Anatsui tapestry for the first time in many years and Kehinde Wiley portraits as well as ceramic vessels by Magdalene Odundo and the Nala family. As I wandered back to Nala's demonstration, I was met with excited eyes by both Susan and Nala. While I was away, my mother, being the proud my mom she is, had shown photos of my work to anyone who would listen. Susan recognized my pottery and Nala looked at me for the first time as if she was really seeing me. She told me my work was beautiful, gave me a hug and I was overcome with emotion. Susan was bubbling over with excitement and invited me to her home in Cambridge, MA, where Nala is staying for the duration of her trip, to work along side her whenever possible. I would also be following the both of them to various events in the region including one at Turo Center for the Arts on Cape Cod.

It is a dream come true to be offered the chance to learn from Jabulile Nala, who comes from a 2,000 year old tradition of Zulu pottery and who can trace her own family lineage of female potters back to 1900. I essentially dropped everything and purchased a one-way ticket to Boston with the intention of staying anywhere between ten days and a month. All of this is only possible through the support of my husband, mom, father in law and you. If you've ever purchased my work or cheered me along in anyway, you had a hand in making this happen and I'm excited to share my experiences with you over the next few weeks.

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