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Collection Artwork
2000 1 28 pr w02
2000 1 28 pr w01
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2000 1 28 pr w03
2000 1 28 pr w02
2000 1 28 pr w01
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2000 1 28 pr w03
vessel for serving beer (Izikhamba)
blackened terracotta
Gift of Bill and Gale Simmons
South Africa, Zulu, Africa

Object Labels

Skidmore recently acquired a substantial collection of African pottery through a generous gift from Bill and Gale Simmons. The 30 pots, which these examples are from, reveal the breadth and richness of African ceramic arts, and offer clues into the daily and ritual lives of African people. All were handbuilt and then fired in an open pit by women, as pottery production in Africa is almost exclusively women’s art.

Two of the pots were made by Lobi women of Burkina Faso. The proliferation of bumps on the surface of the smaller one suggests that it is a medicine pot. The Lobi share a belief common in West Africa that pots with bumps on the surface have medicinal powers, and associations with sorcery. The other Lobi pot is considerably larger, and only minimally decorated, suggesting a more domestic, non-religious use. Judging from the eroded interior surface, it was probably used to store locally brewed corn beer. The simple, incised decoration is the artist’s way of beautifying the pot while marking it as her own.

Beer consumption is the primary motivation for pottery production among the Zulu of the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa. For the Zulu, sorghum-based beer is the social glue of life, and the conduit to their ancestors. It is served during all social and religious ceremonies, and poured as libations to their forefathers. They drink it from gourd-like pots (ukhamba) like the two seen here. The smooth, darkened surfaces and minimal, abstract designs are typical of the aesthetic of Zulu pots. The clusters of bumps that appear on the surface of some of them bear no association with medicine, but rather with herds of cattle, and the wealth they provide.

From the exhibition: Recent Acquisitions (February 2 – April 14, 2002)

The decorative patterns on Zulu pots vary considerably. Some show pellets of clay pressed onto the surface, others flaunt incised triangles or arcs, and yet others have bands of hatching. The markings on the two pots seen here reflect scarification of the Zulu female body around the navel. The correlation between a woman’s womb and these beer pots shows the importance of beer as sustenance in the culture, just as a woman’s womb provides sustenance for her child.

From the exhibition: African Pots and Gender (November 14, 2009 – January 3, 2010)

Ongoing Research

Research on our collection is ongoing. If you have resources you'd like to share, please contact Collections Registrar Jessica Lubniewski.

Learn more

Recent Acquisitions
African Pots and Gender
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