Frothy and nutritious, local beer called utshwala is much beloved by the Zulu people, and besides mere recreational enjoyment, it also serves other functions.
Utshwala (or umqombothi), basically comprises sorghum, maize meal and water as the main ingredients. This is fermented over three days and when opaque and frothy, (roughly 3% alcohol), it is served in a communal terracotta pot and passed from one to another in the assembled throng, as a form of refreshment, respect and bonding.
Beer is dispensed at celebrations including, lobola negotiations, weddings and coming of age festivities. It is also an integral part of rituals and funerals, poured as a libation to the ancestors and for communication with the spirit world. In short, beer signifies complex cultural meanings within the life of Zulu people.
The time and sense of ceremony involved in the production and offering of beer can in an abstract way be equated to a rite on the other side of the world, using tea, by the Japanese. In Both cases, the preparation and ceremonies are conducted by women, with the attitude of respect or hlonipa in the case of the Zulu. A specific set of utensils is used for the procedure, and the beverage in both instances is served in a preconceived terracotta receptacle used only for that purpose. Whilst the makers of Japanese tea bowls were men, often fulfilling an elevated role in society, beer pots are made by Zulu women living a humble existence in remote areas.
Known as ukhamba, these vessels are made by potters collecting clay at river banks and constructing the form using the coil technique. With a lot of elbow grease, izinkamba (p) are heavily burnished at the leather hard stage, imparting a sheen to the surface. (similar to the beautiful surfaces by potter Maria Martinez, New Mexico.) The dense black colour of the pot is achieved from a reduction atmosphere when the izinkamba are fired twice in a pit containing bark and leaves. At between 600-850 degrees C, pots have a low fired porous body perfect for keeping beer cool.
Beer pots have a concise clarity of form characterised by flat bottoms, thin walls and cut off rims. The shape varies from spherical to bag-shaped depending on the geographical region. For me, some of the most beautiful examples come from the Pongola area where decoration is secondary to the tension of the interior space.
Decoration is an additive or an incised process. Sometimes both. Regional stylistic tradition influences the motifs. The designs are inspired by fauna and flora, beadwork patterns and traditional amasumpa motifs, (raised nodules that occur as decor on wood carving such as headrests and milk pails) and are often placed where the pot was held, to prevent slippage when the vessel was passed from one person to another.
In Mpumalanga, beer pots have another role. Traditional healers use them for display, ritual practice and medicinal containment, changing the context and function. The pots decoration also differs from that Nguni ukamba. These pots are displayed in the ndumba (shrine hut) forming part of the symbolic paraphernalia, for designating the site as a sacred space. Traditionally beer is poured from ukhamba as a libation during ancestor rites therefore by association, the inclusion of these vessels in the construction of an altar, endorses this location as one of ancestral habitation.
Historically, not many examples of beer pots exist before the 1890s, perhaps due to the incessant political strife and upheaval in Zululand prior to this time, detailed by Frank Jolles, 2005 in his article “The origins of the twentieth century Zulu beer vessel styles”. Another reason could be that beer was also dispensed in tightly woven grass baskets so European collectors at this time, perhaps considered beer pots/ baskets too fragile or uninteresting to transport or maybe puritanical Victorian perceptions shied away from collecting vessels associated with the demon drink.
Jolles estimates that about 800 examples of clay beer vessels dating from the 1930s to 1970s have survived, collected by European enthusiasts in the 1970-90s. But beautiful vessels are still made in Kwazulu-Natal today. The Nala and Magwaza family being renowned for their outstanding work.
Today, other potters work to satisfy changing market tastes. Certain modifications are due to expedient short cuts or fashion. For example, an adapted way of blackening pots for those seeking a traditional look is with shoe polish. On the other hand, brightly coloured stripes of oil paint imitating beadwork patterns, are popular with some but are considered garish by others. izinkhamba are also painted white for the interior decorating trends in Johannesburg. So one may say that whilst the universal form is retained, its purpose is changed and aesthetically sanitized for contemporary living.
But two contemporary ceramists (both male) are blazing a trail and taking traditional form to another level of aesthetic splendour. In Johannesburg, Madoda Fani uses the ukhamba form as inspiration. He also draws on the importance of cattle in Nguni culture as a repetitive concept, often reflecting stylized images of cattle on his pots, as does Clive Sithole who works in Kwa-Zulu Natal. Both experiment with traditional firing techniques to achieve beautiful surfaces on their pots as they reinvent the ukhamba, amongst others.
Jolles. F. 2005. The origins of the twentieth century Zulu beer vessel styles. S.A. Humanities, vol.17. pg 101-151. Pietermaritzburg.
Perrill. E. Zulu Pottery.