Dr. Elizabeth Perrill, right, presents a copy of the "Ukucwebezela:To Shine" exhibition catalogue to Mamile Ngema, a retired potter.

To some eyes, it’s simply a pot. Either with a lovely design or smooth and perfectly shaped. But to Dr. Elizabeth Perrill, it’s so much more.

The UNCG art historian envisions the hands of the South African artists who created these ceramic vessels and remembers their stories. The one who escaped the life of an indentured servant at a sugar plantation. The one who learned the craft when she married into the family. The one who is working on a law degree, paying for her education through selling her pots.

Perrill understands the ancient uses of the pots – to brew, store and carry low-alcohol, sorghum beer served to ancestors during spiritual ceremonies. And she sees a shift from cultural importance to symbols of a modern generation.

Artists are increasingly expected to be salespeople.

But more than anything, she sees a people who have gone from creating artifacts to creating art.

Traditionally considered a woman’s medium, pots are made from local clay and handcrafted using a meticulous technique called coiling in which sections of clay are rolled into thin, long coils and then stacked and bonded together.

After the pots are symmetrically shaped, they are decorated, polished, dried, pit-fired and blackened.

For years, Perrill has traveled to South Africa to learn about these beer pots and their creators. Currently, she is completing a book-length manuscript, “Zulu Surface and Form: The Aesthetics of South African Ceramic Economies.”

She is also writing an introduction to a new book on Zulu ceramics for Publishing Print Matters, a publishing house in South Africa.

The heft of Perrill’s research rises from detailed interviews with Zulu artists. Having conducted more than 100 interviews, Perrill presents a layered perspective of the lives and tribulations of Zulu artists, especially in a geographic area with limited infrastructure in the years following apartheid.

The commercial market for these artists can be a precarious place. “Artists are increasingly expected to be salespeople, cultural interpreters and aesthetic connoisseurs in their own right,” Perrill says. That’s why her knowledge of African art hasn’t ended at the academy gates; rather, wearing the hat of an advocate, she uses her expertise to help ceramicists gain recognition and sharpen their business acumen.

As a tribute to the community of artists with whom she worked, Perrill developed the expansive catalog and touring exhibition “Ukucwebezela: To Shine — Contemporary Zulu Ceramics” which has shown at UNCG as well as at the African Art Centre in Durban; the Faulconer Gallery at Grinnell; and the Indiana University Art Museum in Bloomington. Recently accepted onto the schedule of exhibitions for Landau Traveling Exhibitions, it will continue to tour. Literally, the title refers to the luster created after a pot is burnished. Metaphorically, it alludes to the opportunity for participating artists to shine.

To read more about Perrill’s work with Zulu artists, download a PDF of UNCG Research magazine.

Photography by Dr. Elizabeth Perrill

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