The latest exhibit at the U of M’s School of Art Gallery’s collections gallery is hundreds of years in the making.
Contemporary Traditions and Allusions: Anderson, Fowler and Ten Zulu Potters brings together pottery works by U of M alumna PJ Anderson and 10 Zulu women.
U of M anthropology professor Kent Fowler is co-curating the exhibit along with school of art professor Grace Nickel.
“While I am influenced by their work, I’m more alluding to their work rather than trying to copy or make Zulu pottery,” said Anderson.
Anderson is a pottery artist who has explored different Indigenous pottery techniques from across the world.
“We’re just sort of having a chance to make a comparison between my work and their work, seeing as I spent a lot of time [in South Africa] and I learned a lot from them,” she said.
When Anderson graduated with a honours bachelor degree in fine arts from the U of M, in 2009, she did not originally set out to study South African pottery.
“I was always interested in Indigenous Canadian ceramics, but we didn’t have any teachers, and no classes,” she said.
Anderson attended some archaeology classes to learn more about pottery, where she attended one of Kent Fowler’s classes. After finding out he was a ceramics expert, Anderson decided she wanted to collaborate with him.
“I talked to [Fowler] for a little bit, and made him be my friend, and he invited me to come to South Africa to study there,” said Anderson.
She accompanied Fowler on his 2009 trip to the province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. The Zulu women in the small South African village she studied in were making pottery for extra money using techniques that had been passed down for generations.
“I was learning very specifically about one culturally handed down way of making pottery,” said Anderson.
In 2012, Anderson returned to South Africa and was the resident artist at the University of Kwazulu Natal near the village she was working with Fowler in 2009.
The first time Fowler went to South Africa was 1997. He originally went to help out with a professor’s project to help with excavation as a University of Alberta graduate student but ended up staying and beginning his own research.
Fowler said he had been wanting to exhibit the work of Zulu potters he spent a substantial amount of time with during fieldwork over the course of about 15 years.
“One of the things that we wanted to do was show that [pottery] work here, because a lot of [the Zulu potters] don’t show their work, a lot of them don’t produce work that they think is art, so they would never show it — these are things to be used,” said Fowler.
The “Contemporary Traditions” in the exhibit’s title is used to emphasize that the pottery artists are using traditional methods while adapting them to the present day.
“These are all contemporary potters, I mean, these are all modern women, present-day women creating fantastic things.
“They’re useful things, but they’re things to be looked at and enjoyed, and there’s meaning behind all of it,” said Fowler.
Fowler worked with them to not only learn about the technology behind their pottery but also the symbolic and cultural significance of these objects.
“As an archaeologist, we try and reconstruct or recreate those invisible things from a finished product,” said Fowler.
Fowler was studying the methods used, the ritual significance of certain pots and finding history and evolution within the regional differences of the pottery.
“For a very long time it’s always been said that Indigenous women’s craft production in different parts of the world is always on a decline.
“Well, I’ve read about this in articles dating back a hundred years ago […] and a hundred years later we still have women doing this,” he said.
There are regional differences but similar methods used within the exhibited Zulu works.
“They’re related, but they have different histories […] and that’s where the tradition part comes from,” said Fowler.
“Some of the things that I learned over the course of this was this absolute blending of what we distinguish as art and science, the technical know-how required to do this and then the innovativeness and industriousness,” said Fowler.
Fowler said he has PhD students using scientific methods trying to map out the methods used in Zulu pottery, in order to translate the knowledge to other fields.
“A lot of these women, they’ll give any geologist a run for their money about the properties of things […] they just don’t talk about it in those terms,” said Fowler.
Having Anderson around as a student for the Zulu potters to teach helped Fowler in his anthropological and archaeological research.
In returning to basic teachings, Fowler said, “We eventually force ideas that are just so ingrained in what people do that they don’t think about it anymore, until you watch them start teaching it, and that was the great thing about having PJ come is we saw first-hand how you would teach this to someone else who you assume knows nothing.”
Contemporary Traditions and Allusions: Anderson, Fowler and Ten Zulu Potters will be exhibited at the School of Art Gallery until Sept. 29. A reception will be held in conjunction with the 1000 Miles Apart Ceramic Conference on Sept. 26 beginning at 6 p.m.