Nicolene Swanepoel Nguni Vessels 2006 | | Art in South Africa
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Nguni Vessels 2006

Nicolene (Nikki) Swanepoel now, too, joins in the popular celebrations of Nguni cattle, the unofficial national animals of our not so new ‘rainbow nation’, and an overdue alternative to the stuffed Springbok. Her ‘Nguni vessels’ appeared in the national FNB Craft Council competition in Durban (July 2006), a group of 20 plus vessels were exhibited at 44 Stanley Avenue in Johannesburg, and three participated in a group exhibition in Franschoek in August.

Once reviled by commercial farmers, now revered, Nguni cattle and their patterned hides have become national icons, evident in most trendy magazines and design shops. As a young Afrikaans farm child, I was introduced to Nguni cattle as ‘baster beeste’ (of non-specific origin, carelessly bred, or ‘hybrid’ animals). However, these animals developed over centuries to adapt to the Southern African environment. Ironically, nowadays they are carefully bred to strict genetic lines, eroding the adaptive advantages of hybrid vigour that comes without manipulated mating.

“My vessels aim to represent such hybrid creatures, incorporating indigenous (chance surface patterns reminding of Nguni skin patterns or ethnic beadwork) and European elements (vase forms) to mirror identities to which some contemporary South Africans may subscribe. The objects are to be admired for their own merit (acting as ‘an artwork’), or can be filled with flowers (acting as a vase, or ‘craft’). The flower vase is a purely decorative item emanating from a European tradition, unfamiliar to pre-colonial South Africa. The duality of these pieces as either a utilitarian item (flower vase) or artwork also echoes their hybrid natures.

The vessels have been made by a technique I have recently developed using industrial bags as a support for the clay. This mirrors an ancient Japanese technique from the Jomon period. Baskets were simply lined with wet clay to transport water. These may have been left by the fire, resulting in the accidental firing of the clay. The earliest pottery known to us may have developed from this happy accident. The oldest Jomon pots were formed inside baskets, later the technique became independent of this support, but retained the effects of basketry by being paddled with rope wound around wooden spatulas. The simple water bearing pots became fantastic vessels with elaborate rims, which defied any utilitarian use, and were probably used in burial and other rituals.”