Conversations with potter Andile Dyalvane are insightful and inspiring. Having been an amateur potter, I understand the joy of clay and its ability to ground you. It’s a lovely medium for creative expression but you also have to yield to it, in a way, and find a collaborative rhythm if you’re to have any success. Dyalvane has certainly found his rhythm, describing his practice as a beautiful dance with clay as he pushes the limits of his medium.
This master is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Design Foundation Icon Award in recognition of outstanding achievement and innovation. His work is in many prestigious local and international public and private collections.
I visited him at his studio in Salt River, Cape Town, 36 hours before lockdown to chat about the work done on a recent residency at The Leach Pottery in the UK. While Dyalvane’s work is rooted in his African heritage and experience, the bold forms, folds, contours and tears of the Leach works are visual references to the rich north-south cultural exchange and the ancient landscapes of Cornwall.
In his studio was a collection of “torn” and scarified black clay bowls he had just completed for the planned Treasure Bowls exhibition at the International Academy of Ceramics in Geneva, Switzerland. He had also started the maquettes for larger works for a show at Friedman Benda in New York. The works evolved from the lexicon of symbols that fill his sketchbooks and inspiration boards. These are inspired by his “visions” and “messages” from ancestors, as well as the work of Credo Vusamazulu Mutwa. He applies the symbols to his work like a Japanese potter’s mark to represent the specific narratives of each of his collections.
Your exhibition at the Southern Guild gallery in Cape Town featured an extensive collection of handbuilt studio ceramics made during your residency at Leach. How did this period of artistic and cultural exchange between north and south influence your practice?
Being invited to the Leach studios was phenomenal. It was a great honour to be in the studio of Bernard Leach, who I had learned about while studying, and [Japanese potter] Shoji Hamada, who was a teacher at the studio but is also a student, collaborator and friend of Leach. It was an incredible experience to immerse myself in their ethos of spiritual alignment in working with, and through, clay.
Whenever I travel, my intention is to use the time to “collaborate” with the place through introspection and observation of environmental cues, tracing stories of cultural connectedness, movements and rhythms and reconciling these through clay.
Your work is rooted in your Eastern Cape Xhosa heritage. What resonated with you in the Cornish landscape?
I grew up in rural South Africa and was exposed to the crisp landscapes and vivid changes that happened in these landscapes. How cattle crossings widen and deepen or how new villages were established nearby … the agricultural rhythms, the rain and river fluctuations. I developed an acute awareness and felt a oneness with the environment, which I express through clay.
The Cornish landscape was reminiscent of home. While there, I felt a deep sense of the preservation of an ancient time that celebrates the rituals of solstice and harvests. But I also felt a deep sadness over the effects of the colonial missionaries on the core cultural and traditional practices of my own people.
There is a constant spiritual consciousness in your work …
Yes, it's a calling to a way of life for me; everything is part of all things. What I touch, touches me. So, being one with the clay gives expression to my spirituality and vice versa. Music and movement are also important guides.
Did you feel a spiritual presence in the masters Leach and Hamada at Leach?
I believe mastering something is a spiritually conscious path. I felt honored to be able to create “in their presence” and be surrounded by continuous reminders of their resounding legacy.
What is the significance of the scarification marks in your work?
Cutting through the clay “flesh” is like the ritual healing practice of ukubhaca or ukuqatshulwa, the fine cutting of the skin in certain areas of the body that forms part of my Xhosa tradition. Medicinal herbs are placed into each incision. It unifies aspects of spirituality and family bonds. I acknowledge this practice of unification, healing, bonding and belonging through my work which, in essence, becomes a pattern of my cultural experiences.
WATCH | Andile Dyalvane explains the evolution and application of his lexicon of symbols:
The work of Leach and Hamada has a “Japanese” aesthetic. What was important about their work and the studio?
Collaboration — through material, function, expression, environment, time and transfer of skills. The studio is a space to explore and experience this ideology in practice and exists beyond any one particular ethnic association. It is a language of the heart, vocalised through clay. What they explored was a universal ideology of craftsmanship, its qualities and capacity to connect us to each other. Time away from production was just as important as time spent attending to it. A sort of ease, balance and centredness is what I feel about both.
What was your takeaway from the residency experience?
It’s important to be curious as part of any creative process. To share with others opens up real possibilities for fresh knowledge. Leach and Hamada’s intergenerational family and community skills transfer shows that their calling to clay was, and is, a way life.
You’ve found a wonderful rhythm working with clay. Could you imagine doing anything else?
I can imagine doing different things now but always in collaboration with clay. This comes in the form of paying homage to my forebears. My father, who worked with metal, has me keen on always collaborating with forged blacksmithing works, for example.
• You can request a catalogue of Andile Dyalvane's Leach Pottery works from the Southern Guild or visit the gallery when we are allowed out again. Dyalvane works can be viewed at the Imiso Ceramics gallery at The Old Biscuit Mill, Woodstock.