Ceramic artist Zizipho Poswa’s momentous debut solo exhibition in the US is titled iiNtsika zeSizwe, meaning “Pillars of the Nation” and is a celebration of black womanhood. It opened on May 15 at Galerie56 in New York in collaboration with Southern Guild.
The SA artist is showing monumental bronze sculptures that honour a community of women from her home village of Holela in the Eastern Cape. The exhibition title is her heartfelt tribute to the strength and profound generosity of the country’s women, particularly the unseen, unsung pillars of the nation, who are essential to the survival of their communities.
In our interview, she gives insight into the body of work and her artistic process.
It truly does “take a village”. Her seven sculptural bronze works are named after specific women, mothers, sisters, providers, healers, caretakers and breadwinners who each played a role in Poswa’s upbringing. “These are the women I was raised by. They are the reason I am inspired to create. I am who I am because of their abundant love, strength and support,” Poswa says.
Though each sculpture is titled after a significant woman in her life, the physical forms are conceptually rooted in the practice of umthwalo. “Each form features a voluptuous, feminine-like base that carries varying interpretations of traditional loads. Some are more abstract interpretations, while others are more literal reflections of loads.”
Umthwalo, the isiXhosa word for “load”, refers to the traditional practice of women carrying heavy items on their heads, often walking long distances to support their families’ livelihoods.
Accompanying the ceramic sculptures is a photographic portrait series, which was shot in Poswa’s home village by local photographer Hayden Phipps. It serves as a visual representation of the practice of umthwalo where Poswa showcases the lived, daily experiences of the women she is celebrating.
The portraits which capture her in traditional dress, carrying various goods — fruit, vegetables, firewood and water — are representative not only of women from rural Eastern Cape but evoke the experiences of women from diverse cultures across the continent.
“These images provide powerful and evocative context for the sculptural works. Harnessing the medium of photography to better tell my intended narratives has been a beautiful and embodying learning experience,” she says.
Poswa’s creative process often begins with an idea, a feeling or a colour. She draws the concept out through sketching to visually make sense of the form and potential structure of the work. At times there is research involved to learn more about a particular idea, as well as compiling visual references from which to derive inspiration.
“Some concepts flow with ease, some require more intense research and planning, especially when working with new materials at such a monumental scale,” she says.
A contrast was the ambitious, sole use of the regal material bronze, though she is not completely new to it. Her previous bodies of work uBuhle boKhokho and iLobola included bronze elements. Using bronze was a natural creative progression that was “a very technical, complex and labour-intensive process” that involved the lost-wax casting method to create the work.
She chose the material “for its strength, as it so aptly reflects the strength of my subjects. I was also drawn to the permanence and immense durability of the material”. Moreover, bronze has historically been associated with the memorials of colonial and apartheid-era patriarchs, thus her use of the material invites us to explore an alternative perspective of respect, recognition and remembrance of underrepresented matriarchs.
The culmination of iiNtsika zeSizwe was shared with the community that inspires her. This is documented in a homecoming short film that forms part of the exhibition.
Briefly reflecting on her artistic journey, she starts from her foundation in textile design that led to co-founding Imiso Ceramics with fellow ceramicist Andile Dyalvane in 2005. That set in motion her transition and organic evolution into ceramics, to beginning her process of making hand-sized ceramic pieces, until she forayed into her current artistry of monumental collectible design. And then reaching a milestone she counts as one of the highlights, the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquiring her work in 2022.
However, the journey has often been a collective effort, and for this body of work she credits it as a collaborative result of the support from the team at Southern Guild, her team and the work and guidance from Bronze Age Foundry.
Poswa’s artistic practice has been driven by her desire to honour and immortalise her Xhosa heritage and culture. Her commitment is to honouring the cultural traditions from whence she came, to presenting them on international platforms to diverse audiences, collectors and art cognoscente, is reverence to the lineages of women that have contributed to who she is.
“I’ve worked hard to succeed, and that success is only possible because of the immense hard work and sacrifice of the women that came before me. I hope that all black women, regardless of their culture or native country, can draw power and inspiration from my story” — a story that has artfully moulded umthwalo (load) and shaped it into uzuko (glory).
Visit southernguild.co.za for more on this exhibition.