When you hear the word ‘ceramics’, you probably don’t think of magic. But working with this unpredictable medium is equal parts sorcery, artistry and, ultimately, acts of faith. A ceramicist can never be sure that what comes out of the kiln will resemble what they put in.
As Christian Buchner – who will be featured in An Act of Faith, a new exhibition at Spier Wine Farm, running from June to October and curated by the Spier Arts Trust – says: “While every medium affords unique possibilities, ceramics – with their arcane workings in the firing process – bewitch.”
But uncertainty is not the only challenge facing artists working with ceramics. Chief Curator at Spier Art Trust, Tamlin Blake, decided to organise the exhibition after visiting an unusually scant exhibition of the annual Ceramics South Africa exhibition in Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape.
“It was shocking because there were very few pieces being exhibited,” Blake explains. “Part of it was due to Covid, of course, but frequent loadshedding was also an issue.”
‘Firing’ or heating up an electric kiln – the most common type of kiln – to the correct temperature before glazing can take up to 12 hours. The power supply needs to remain constant for the duration of the firing to achieve the desired artistic results. So rolling blackouts have baked additional complexity into their work.
“These artists are struggling just to practise their craft,” Blake says. “Spier Arts wanted to support them and give them an opportunity by providing an exciting exhibition space and an opportunity for exposure to a broader market within South Africa.”
An Act of Faith features more than 40 ceramic artworks by artists from across the country. While each artwork is unique, certain core themes have emerged.
“Endemic to the ceramics-making process is the notion of transformation,” Blake says. “Mud, water, earth and fire all interact to create and transform clay into art. But there’s no guarantee of what the end result will be. So there’s definitely a sense of magic.”
Tied to the manifestation of transformation is the artists’ exploration of memory, and physical and emotional healing.
Spirituality also looms large with depictions of religious imagery and artefacts, and artists’ own interpretations of the afterlife. Xirilo Wyne Ngobeni’s work based on funeral urns, for example, is an ode to their mother who has passed away.
All of the ceramic creations tell a story. Art as a narrative provides the viewer with a powerful, personal and intimate connection with the artists and their work.
An exciting component that resonates with Spier’s regenerative business and sustainability principles is that some of the featured artists have prioritised working with recycled clay, repurposed from pre-loved creations. Others have searched rivers, dams and far-flung farms to gather their own by digging, processing and experimenting with this “wild clay”, as featured artist Mark Dodd calls it.
Wild or recycled, telling a story or reflecting a spiritual truth, ceramics are first and foremost about functionality. So expect a hint of the practical amidst the splendour of the sublime.
Art, like food and wine, is best shared, which is why Spier is such an enthusiastic supporter of African artists and their creations. Housing one of the largest contemporary art collections in the country, Spier believes in the power of the visual arts to teach and inspire, encouraging us all to engage openly with our world and each other. With such a thriving local artistic community and rich cultural heritage, Spier is excited about the future of South African art.
When: 23 June to 23 October 2023, 9:00 – 17:00 daily
Where: Old Wine Cellar, Spier Wine Farm, Stellenbosch