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Burnished vessels: Ian Garrett hand-burnishes vessels and explains his methods and sources of inspitation.


SOUTH AFRICA IS AN EXCITING PLACE to be a potter. Although the local market for visual art is limited, there is a vibrancy and creative energy in ceramics that is starting to gain international attention. This nation's multicultural makeup often feels like something of a social experiment, in which ideas are constantly challenged and the unexpected often prevails.

It is in this light that I have gained attention as a maker of handbuilt burnished vessels, a ceramic technology with an ancient and venerable tradition on the African continent, but one that is also being reinvented by a new generation of South African potters. My work has evolved through a complex and passionate relationship with these traditions that I have developed over time.


My journey in ceramics began as a child growing up in the Eastern Cape Province, along the coast about 1000 km from Cape Town. Having a keen interest in archaeology, I was delighted to discover pot shards in the sand dune shell middens during holidays at the beach. These I learnt had been made by the ancient Khoe people who had inhabited the area in pre-colonial times.

To my childhood imagination these shards evoked a world far removed from my mundane suburban existence and I tried making my own fanciful versions of the pots to pit-fire in the backyard at home. Despite the disappointing failure of these first firing experiments, an interest in ceramics took root and I signed up for classes at school.

At that time in the early 1980s there was little practical information available in South Africa about handbuilding, burnishing or pit-firing, especially about local African traditions which were generally regarded as primitive and given little attention. The remote rural districts where African ceramic traditions continued were beyond my reach and I could do little more than examine the few examples I found in the local museum for inspiration.

The end of my school days coincided with the political liberation of South Africa. I enrolled at a local university to study Fine Art and set aside my interest in ceramics for a few years, because a course in ceramics was not on offer. I then heard about a pioneering research project on Zulu ceramics being conducted by Juliet Armstrong and Ian Calder at the neighbouring University of Natal. This gave me the opportunity to pursue my interest in African ceramics, and I transferred universities and leapt at the chance to participate as a student assistant in research field-trips.

These were trips deep into rural Zululand, to locate and interview potters who continued a largely undocumented but vibrant ceramic tradition. I became the first student at the university to complete a Master's degree based on the research of African ceramics, writing my thesis about the work of the late Nesta Nala, the doyenne of Zulu potters.

The ceramic work that I began making myself as a student was inevitably influenced by the Zulu traditions I was researching. It seemed unthinkable at the dawn of the 'New South Africa' to ignore this rich cultural heritage surrounding me. I also found myself in a unique and privileged position through my contact with Zulu potters to be able to learn directly from them and integrate some of this knowledge into my own art-making experience.

Many of the Zulu techniques I learnt needed to be adapted to suit the urban environment in which I was working at the university, where material resources such as specific clays and firing fuels were not readily available. In a similar way I adapted elements of Zulu aesthetic style to the studio ceramic tradition.


The resulting work drew attention, winning prestigious national prizes and setting me on the path to becoming a full-time practising ceramist after completing my studies. I continue to work in much the same way today.

Each of my vessels is built individually using a combination of coiling and pinching. The leatherhard pieces are scraped down to refine the form, then rewetted and smoothed for decorating. After burnishing the undecorated areas, the pieces are set aside to dry completely.

Re-burnishing using oil and smooth polished stones is a laborious process which can take many hours but produces a permanent lustrous high shine. Each piece is then individually pit or saggar-fired with sawdust, wood bark, dried aloe leaves or cow dung to achieve silvery reduced black or softly varied terracotta colours.

The initial public response to my student work was not always favourable and I received much criticism. The reaction was understandable from a local audience in the wake of the social and political upheaval of the early 1990s. Many South Africans were questioning their identity, but were largely unfamiliar with African ceramics and consequently unsure of how to contextualise my work.

Most of the criticism was based on the assumption that my work was attempted as a copy of traditional Zulu ceramics, but lacking its supposed authenticity. The concept of authenticity has been thoroughly examined in academic discourse in relation to traditional and tourist arts and generally discredited. It can be summed up as the result of a primitivist idealisation that views African art as being contaminated by Western influence.

A double standard often persists in which African ceramics are viewed as ethnically exclusive and encouraged to conform to cultural stereotypes. Western ceramics are by contrast praised for their technical and artistic innovations and outsiders are usually encouraged to participate, if only in the largesse of perceived cultural superiority.

The debate around my work and where to locate it within these arguments drew attention and helped place it in the mainstream of South African ceramics, leading to its inclusion in exhibitions, collections and publications.

Ten years later it is accepted on its own merits as a somewhat eccentric part of the development of local ceramics. It has recently been exhibited internationally, along with the changing ceramic traditions of other African countries, where its inclusion challenges persistent assumptions about national, racial and cultural identity.

My own feelings and ideas as an artist have changed over the years. I left the province of KwaZulu-Natal soon after completing my studies and have spent many years away from that formative influence. I have since come to view my work as reflecting a continuing internal dialogue between many different elements of my personal and cultural background; a fusion of ideas that resists any single interpretation or definition. Often contradictory, it reveals a layering of identity, as a white South African but with some mixed race descent, practising studio ceramics but working with what is often interpreted as an African idiom.


I am frustrated by the tendency to stereotype the burnished and pit-fired appearance of my vessels as African solely on the basis of my geographical location and well-known academic research. This obscures many more subtle readings. I have always been fascinated by the archetypal similarity of many contemporary and ancient ceramic styles from all over the world. I researched many of these traditions during my training to learn as much as I could about burnishing and pit-firing, encountering some of this information long before my contact with African potters.

An awareness of these archetypes is evident in my work and provides an underlying fabric on to which I am able to build the layers of reference that my work includes. In contemplating my own identity I have often looked to ancient European traditions of handbuilt ceramics in particular. My understanding of contemporary African practice allows me to relate to these works and provides insights about how they may have been made and hold meaning, in much the same way that recent experimental archaeology has drawn such parallels.

On a more immediate level I am captivated by the processes of the technology I use. This has always been one of the primary motivations for my choice of style. I enjoy the contemplatively slow process of building and refining forms, working with basic tools and materials, the cycles and rhythms of working. I enjoy the excitement and directness of pit-firing, with its unpredictable rewards. These techniques make me feel directly connected with potters of the past, providing their own sense of meaning and purpose which link me to thousands of years of ceramic tradition.


I am fascinated with the possibilities of decorating my work through pattern making. This area of aesthetic pursuit has often been dismissed as decorative 'low' art in the West, but is a richly historic and vibrant form of expression in many other societies. I have attempted to establish a vocabulary of pattern motifs in a style that can be identified as my own, to emphasise the individual artistic identity of my work in relation to various other cultural or historical ceramic styles.

Using textural contrast, positive and negative interplay and various complex constructions of symmetry, I try to create rhythmical pattern repetitions that harmonise with the expanding and contracting forms of the vessels. I carefully position the motifs on any visible portion of the vessel surface, numbering the repetitions of the pattern to create an impression of dynamic movement around the vessel, or one of balance and stability. The precision of the impressed lines can be similarly manipulated to create areas of visual tension, where motifs join or separate at sharp angles or flow harmoniously.

The challenges and the possibilities of my present line of exploration are exciting and rewarding and seem to offer much scope for continued ins piration and development.

Through trial and error I began to gain an understanding of some of the underlying principles of the technology I was interested in. In doing so I acquired an admiration for the magnificent handbuilt vessels that had been made in Africa and other parts of the world many years ago.

I decorate these vessels by impressing fine lines into the clay with the serrated edge of a mussel shell.

While my work shares a love of abstraction and geometry with both African and ancient art, I also make subtle reference to botanical forms or other motifs of personal interest or significance. I choose motifs that have a cipher-like quality, suggestive of meaning without being specific.

Ian Garrett graduated with a Master's degree in ceramics from the University of Natal in 1997. He is a member of the International Academy of Ceramics and works as a studio ceramist in South Africa.
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Author:Garrett, Ian
Publication:Ceramics Technical
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:May 1, 2008
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