While today you do occasionally see Zulu beer pots being made by men, traditionally pot making is the territory of women, who not only make the clay vessels, but are also responsible for brewing the beer that goes into the pots. While Zulu pots have always been both functional and decorative, the women of the Nala family have taken pot making to another level, producing what can only be described as serious works of art!
Comprising three generations of traditional Zulu clay pot-makers, the finely crafted pottery of the Nalas is made in the Thukela Valley in KZN. Recognition of the family’s talent started with Nesta Nala (1940-2005), who is credited with reviving the Zulu beer pot tradition, known as ukhamba. Nesta began making pots at the age of twelve, having learned the craft from her mother, Siphiwe, also an acclaimed potter who made beer pots for local use. Nesta in turn passed the tradition down to her daughters, Jabu, Thembi and Zanele, each of whom have in turn developed their own distinctive style.
While the Nala’s pots are immediately recognisable as Zulu beer pots, the decoration on their work breaks with tradition somewhat, and is said to have been inspired by the motifs on iron-age pot shards shown to Nesta by a local archaeologist. Motifs, such as fish, shields and houses, form part of the Nala’s work, something seldom seen in Zulu ceramics. Something else that sets their pots apart, is the fact that they are signed, the result of competing in a world that values collectible works of art.
While the quality, finish and even size – they can be quite large! – of the Nala pots makes them stand out from the crowd, they are still made using traditional techniques of hand-coiling clay, which is then smoothed and burnished with river pebbles once it becomes leather hard. Decorative patterns are either cut into the pots surface, or added directly onto the pots using a technique which involves adding small pieces of clay to form a raised pattern. The pots are then fired twice, the second time giving them their characteristic black colour. Once cooled they are rubbed with animal fat, and brushed to a glossy shine.
Nesta Nala was invited to represent South Africa in the Cairo International Biennial for Ceramics in 1994, and won first prize in the 1995 FNB Vita Craft Competition, as well as the National Ceramics Biennial in 1996. Her work, together with that of her daughters, is represented in several permanent collections across South Africa, as well as being internationally sought after by collectors.