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Peter Mthombeni's visual creole.

REPRESENTATIONS OF CATTLE CAN ACT AS MARKERS of contemporary South African identities. The ceramics of Peter Mthombeni fuse various traditions (Western and African, colonial and ethnic). Mthombeni utilises cattle as cultural markers, not only to affirm his individual history but also to reflect a new cultural space in a democratic South Africa.

Mthombeni's ceramic vessels and utilitarian ware are categorised as craft, not art (1); they are positioned in the grey area between 'fine art' and utilitarian objects or craft. While he names his vessels 'vases,' (2) (indeed they are clearly recognisable as this Western form, for instance the Hedgehog Vases, as well as the Fang Vase), the surface treatments act like metaphoric cattle skins wrapping spaces thus reminding of utilitarian ethnic vessels that have a purpose in spiritual ritual. (3) Such a reading permits a symbolic significance to the vase form.

Mthombeni received an academic education in fine art, and has exhibited work in designated 'art' spaces such as galleries, and must, in part, be shaped by these experiences. The art institution or art world, (4) its cornerstones being the museum, the gallery, the critic and the academy, ratifies whether an object is art or not. It valorises, categorises and even excludes objects; some objects are elevated to 'high art' while others are demoted to be 'mere' craft, or simple objects of utility. In South Africa, the boundaries of these traditionally separate disciplines are slower to disappear than in the Western world. However, since the first democratic elections in 1994, the boundaries of art have expanded to include previous political exclusions and a multiplicity of cultures. These boundaries continue to shift away from former rigidities in order to celebrate an African specificity. This allows artists from different traditions to exhibit a porosity, assimilating and re-interpreting images, sources and styles originating in different cultural groups. In this way historical ('traditional') difference becomes less prominent, less separating, more 'creolised'.

Mthombeni prioritises an African identity. My interview with him reveals that this is due to more than mere geographical situation. He refutes a deliberately provocative use of 'other' imagery.


Mthombeni suggests that his inclusion of European styles was a logical outflow of his studies in ceramic history at the Technikon of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg), not a deliberate effort to comment on his relation to colonialism (Swanepoel, 2005). His use of Western references in conjunction with the narrative elements in his work provide for complex readings which nevertheless reflect Western art traditions favoured by colonialism. However, such references are reshaped by his indigenous origins.

History (personal as well as cultural history) is still identifiable in the new post-apartheid society, but in the creole (5) art language it is often reshaped. Traces of former inherited traditions are present in this new art language. Mthombeni bases his ceramic forms on a rural narrative oral tradition (legends). Mthombeni, though, fuses the traditions he emanates from with aspects of 'other' culture. The particular way in which elements are manipulated can be regarded as utilising a new creolised art language.

A 'creole' language consists of new words, but also retains remnants of the original two sources, namely indigenous language, and that of the coloniser. A new art language is developing, one that parallels the 'Creole' (6) patois. Mthombeni exhibits a need to express the rapid social and historical changes in South Africa's move towards inclusiveness under democracy with an art language which can be considered as 'creole'.

With slavery (7) at its historical roots and apartheid at its heels, the term creolisation is backdropped against struggle, conflict and violence. It not only identifies difference, racism and violence, but also creates connections and cross-racial networking (Nuttall and Michael, in Strauss, 2004:28). Strauss notes that a "transgressive reach" grows out of its violent history, which leans itself to creative, imaginative and artistic renewal; regenerative conditions arising from marginality (2004:28, 29).

Mthombeni experienced difficulties of marginalisation and exclusion under apartheid. His almost insurmountable difficulty in receiving a formal art training at an art institution is but one aspect of this marginalisation (Swanepoel, 2005). Mthombeni could have remained within the cultural divides dictated by apartheid, but he seems to have anticipated the imminent failure of a system that isolated groups and moved towards engagement with the 'other' in a transformative manner.

Mthombeni's Hedgehog Vases, while they mimic Western vases, have a personal narrative function, embedded in a culturally specific and lived experience of cattle arising from the memories of a herd boy. Furthermore, he makes use of a legend told to him by his grandparents (Mthombeni, 1992: 3-7), part of the tales, myths and beliefs emanating from his cultural group. It relates how the skin of the hedgehog is pulled over the gatepost of the kraal, making the spines bristle in every direction. This, legend has, holds supernatural powers that lead the lost stock home. This tale is recorded in a creolised visual language (the vase form being Western) in a series called The Hedgehog Vases (1992), each about 40 cm high. The telling of the tale is achieved through surface embellishments. He does not portray a simple logical narrative but subverts the traditional story through stylistic and conceptual hybridisation.

A variety of separate symbols on his vases, loosely placed but conceptually integrated, relates the legend. The symbols never occupy a central or overpowering position, but read as several smaller subtle elements to be discovered as the vase (the tale) unfolds to the viewer. One vase's form is based on an ox sliding down the back of an exaggerated hedgehog, a second handle being the tail of an ox, while the base serves as a kraal where everything converges, unifying the work (Hedgehog Vase 1). In Hedgehog Vase 2, a curled up hedgehog holds a whip that is used to drive the livestock or a span of oxen. In another, the stock is being led into the kraal, represented by the base of the vase, by means of a funnel-like structure with scraffito'd hedgehog spines on it. A fourth vase shows the stock-driving whip forming the rim of the vessel (Hedgehog Vase 4). The carving of the wooden handle of the whip witnesses his love of woodcarving, "... that has a long history in Africa ..." (Mthombeni. 1992: 7).

With these works the decorative function of the vase is subverted so that, while they perform as aesthetic objects, they also become repositories (8) of cultural memory-tradition. This memory is extended by the artist's statement that he finds these stories similar to mythologies of animals associated with magic, ritual and fertility "nearly as old as man's first paintings and rock carvings". (Mthombeni, 1992: 3). The widespread occurrence of rock paintings and engravings worldwide suggests that such animal myths extend beyond the culturally specific and are rooted in the experience of early humankind of which collective memory may bear traces.

Traditional African decoration, such as the amasumpa (9) on milk pails, is geometric, visual as well as tactile, carved to stand out in relief from the clay surface. While Mthombeni presents new forms of decoration on his vases, it links with the past in its use of incised or painted geometric pattern, providing visual and tactile rhythmical pathways, similar to amasumpa and other forms of decoration used by traditional African potters.

Although the decorative elements at times become more figurative, for instance whips curling around the rim of the vessel (Hedgehog Vase 4), many elements are simplified to repetitive pattern, as evidenced by the scrafito-patterns, resembling the spines of the hedgehog. It bears remembering that clay vessels, traditionally the domain of women, here is the medium of choice for a man. Viewed from a traditional perspective, gender roles are being challenged.

Forming part of the National Higher Diploma exhibition, Mthombeni's plates suggest both direct and indirect references to cattle and colonial culture. The plate as holding a portion of food for an individual person is not a traditional African form. African serving platters hold sufficient food for a group of people. Furthermore, positioning plates on walls (instead of regarding them as utilitarian items) is a Western practice dating from the industrial revolution when objects of use became plentiful, the most decorative of which were then used to embellish the home. (10) In Mthombeni's plates the form belongs to the Western tradition but the applied image or decoration recalls his rural experience.

Wall Plate 1 seems at first glance not to refer to cattle. The image of a white athlete which, while not a direct translation, recalls the use of athletes on Greek vases. Here the figure is seen running from a barbed wire enclosure. In traditional Africa enclosed spaces separate from open space the home and the cattle (the kraal). The function of both homestead and kraal is protective. In this instance the figure flees from this restriction, a member of its 'herd' determined to escape confinement. It could be read as a subtext of South Africa's recent history with the figure attempting to escape from the strictures of the past, of confinement and separation, and blazing a 'new' trail.


Wall Plate 2 shows a skin being cured, stretched out and drying in the open, from which emerges a hand clasping a knobkierie. Beside it is a bundle of stacked grass, perhaps waiting to clad a hut. This suggests a tension between potential violence, a feature of South Africa's history, and the ability to build not only a home but a nation, bearing in mind that this wall plate was created in 1992, shortly before the first general elections in South Africa (1994) which opened a way to resolve the conflicts resulting from apartheid. The cured skin can be read as the time of healing which followed.

Divided spaces and territories were a feature of South Africa's history. Wall Plate 3 shows striped beacons, marking a terrain in an arbitrary open manner, one still in the process of definition, perhaps indicating the uncharted space of creolisation which lay ahead. Small pocked red marks next to a dark field can be read as cattle spoor next to a dry pan, or cattle fording a river.

In describing his motivation, Mthombeni claims (1992:1-2) that during his creative process he does not seek to change the source material, but rather to make the sources, African and Western, converge in his work. (11) He emphasises diversity in style, and a variety of visual references. The work also reflects an eclectic and a postmodern (12) approach in the formation process, favoured in the early 1990s by the art institution. Parts of Mthombeni's forms are thrown (13) separately and then assembled, and further elaborated by hand building and sprigged extensions. This process leads to assembled forms integrated into a vase.

Mthombeni's range of references includes accessing (in addition to contemporary and Western traditions) the broader history of the African continent, namely tribal 'pre-colonial' traditions. The Fang Vase combines elements of postmodern interiors with ritual elements of African herbalists, African masks and African wire work. The vase with its prominently horned rim bears traces of forms reminiscent of African 'wild cattle' like buffalo and wildebeest.

In conclusion, Mthombeni's work makes use of a creolised art language in order to express both past and present. His narrative vases not only record traditional folk tales from the past but also reflect a cross breeding of sources by incorporating elements of Western form used by colonialists (the vase) with elements of an indigenous oral tradition. I have argued that such visual creolisation results in part from his exposure to an institutional art education, and in part from South Africa's history. These factors shape the representations of cattle discussed, and his personal subjectivity.


(1.) Where status is being argued (it is questionable if indeed it should be a factor), craft is nowadays theoretically considered equal to fine art. In practice the two disciplines are often still divided and hierarchically categorised. In his essay 'Fine Art and Functional Objects' Arthur Danto ruminates the responses of the purchaser of a Greek calyx crater for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This buyer prizes the painted decoration, rather than to the vessel itself. "The distinction between fine art and functionality is ... historically contingent and constantly under negotiation.... There is no simple answer to the question of the relationship between them, but it is valuable to see this history as one of shifting alliances and treaties."

(2.) Vases and utilitarian vessels have commonality in that they are both space containing forms. However, the traditions surrounding the forms are different. Vases emanate from European culture, the primary function being aesthetic. The possibility of holding flowers, its possible utilitarian value, is secondary. The purely decorative vase is alien to indigenous African ceramic tradition where vessels are utilitarian, usually with an everyday use value (though sometimes reserved for specific important ceremonies) as well as a symbolic and often ritualistic function. Mthombeni calls his vessels vases, thereby reconfiguring different traditions in one object.

(3.) "Each of these objects, which saw practical daily use, is enmeshed in a complex network of symbolic associations, including a spiritual or religious dimension ..., and these allusions were embodied in the form which an object took" (Nel, 2002:18).

(4.) Art World is a term coined by Arthur C. Danto: "What 'The Art World' achieved was the establishment of a connection between what the question of what is art and certain institutional factors in society. It was the origin of what has come to be called the Institutional Theory of Art ..." (1993: 6).

(5.) In South Africa, Nuttall and Michael use the phrase to describe contemporary cultural formation, intermixing various individuals of a variety of cultures, languages and religions to invent a new language ('Creole'), culture and social structure (in Strauss, 2004: 27).

(6.) According to Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin in Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies (1998: 58-9) 'creolisation' is a process of intermixing and cultural change particularly in context of 'new world', European (often English and French) colonies. It happens mainly in post-colonial societies, producing current populations which are totally new products of ethnically and racially mixed cultures.

(7.) Creolisation involves painful processes, often with limited choices. Robert C. H. Shell recognises slavery (in the Cape) as shaping the historical formation of creolisation (in Strauss, 2004: 26-27).

(8.) The incorporation of the grandparents' history in these clay vessels is both an acknowledgement of the role and regard for elders in the family, but also metaphorically incorporates the elder who is closer to the ancestors than the young child (to whom the story is being told), underscoring the importance of the oral tradition in traditional Africa.

(9.) In the Zulu culture, amasumpa, the diamond shape relief patterns found on wooden milk pails, meat platters and earthenware beer vessels, provide grip (Jolles 2001:310) but also refer to cattle (Perani & Smith 1998:340), and thus indirectly to ancestors.

(10.) African utensils are often hung on the wall in between use, functioning as decoration (Mthombeni, 1992: 25-6).

(11.) Mthombeni supports his use of African and Western styles by quoting Peter Fuller, referring to 'Radical Eclecticism': "The true and proper style today is some form of eclecticism, because only this can adequately encompass the pluralism that is our social and metaphysical reality." (from Towards a New Nature for the Gothic, in Mthombeni, 1992: 1).

(12.) Garth Clark states that "Postmodernism and ceramics is a marriage made in artworld heaven. This particular nirvana, shielded from modernism's disapproving scowl, is brightly patterned, unconcerned about reverence for authorship or originality, ready to quote styles from the medium's long past at the drop of a slip brush, and prepared to mine every semiotic meaning inherent in clay, glaze, pottery and utility. This has liberated ceramics, allowing it to express its historical literacy, its humour, and its relationship to both everyday life and the decorative arts." (2001: 8).

(13.) Throwing is not a traditionally African technique.


Ashcroft, B. Griffiths, G. & Tiffin, H. 1998. Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies. London: Routledge.

Clark, G. 2001. Introduction. In: Del Vecchio, M. Postmodern Ceramics. London: Thames and Hudson: 8-25.

Danto, A.C. 1993. Introduction. In: Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-historical Perspective. (3-12) New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

Danto, A.C. 1993. 'The Art World Revisited: Comedies of Similarity'. In: Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-historical Perspective. (33-41) New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

Danto, A.C. 1994. Embodied Meanings: Critical Essays & Aesthetic Meditations. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

Danto, A.C. 1996. 'The vase as a form and subject: Craft and meaning in the work of Betty Woodman'. In: Betty Woodman. Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum.

Gardiner, H. 1975. Art through the Ages. New York, Chicago, South San Francisco, Atlanta: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.

Godfrey, T. 1998. Conceptual Art. London: Phaidon. Hopper, R. 2004. Making Marks: Rediscovering the Ceramic Surface. Iola, USA: KP Books.

Jolles, F. 2001. 'Zulu Beer Vessels' In: Eisenhofer, S. (ed.). Tracing the Rainbow. Art and Life in Southern Africa. Stuttgart: Arnoldsche.

Mtombeni, Peter. 1992. 'An Exploration of Composite Ceramic Forms Combining Diverse Stylistic Influences'. Higher Diploma in Ceramic Design dissertation, Technikon of the Witwatersrand.

Nel, K. 2002. In: Klopper, S. & Nel, K. (Eds.). The Art of Southeast Africa. Milan: 5 Continents Editions srl.

Perani, J. & Smith, F. 1998. The Visual Arts of Africa. Gender, Power, and Life Cycle Rituals. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Strauss, H. 2004. 'Living the pain of creolisation.' In: Distiller, N. & Steyn, M. (Eds.). Under Construction: 'Race' and Identity in South Africa Today. Johannesburg: Heinemann.

Swanepoel, N.C. 2005. Personal interview with Peter Mtombeni, Troyville Factory, Johannesburg, 4 October. Newtown, Johannesburg, 16 September.

Nicolene Swanepoel is a ceramic artist and a retired veterinarian from South Africa.

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Author:Swanepoel, Nicolene
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Dec 1, 2007
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