Vision for Africa Pottery Workshop: A case study for traditional African design
In 2003 Carola Tengler, an Austrian ceramicist, joined the Vision for Africa pottery workshop in Mukono. Her own vision for the work is that there is a traditional African form and design that is unique to Africa, and therefore must be uplifted and used to create unique works and not works that are trying to copy other cultures’ ideals.
Written by Abigail Bartels
In a summary piece of various contemporary ceramic artists of South Africa, Steven Smith says the following:
“The success of traditional pottery seems inextricably linked to Europeans; either as facilitators or business leaders on the one hand or the purchasers on the other. This symbiotic relationship has the drawback of the best artifacts ending up overseas. However, the benefit is increased interest and trade in pottery – even from the tourism sector – allowing potters to develop and refine their practice and supports more people in the community learning the craft, ironically ensuring its survival as a tradition.
At this juncture whether an African potter is studio-based or works traditionally does not seem to affect their fortunes, only that they are discovered and promoted. It is likely that as more potters like Clive Sithole come up through the ranks, African pottery will organically develop its own aesthetic and become increasingly self-assured. And that which is created in studios will influence the village potter.”
Source: African pottery in South Africa: Life After the Village; The Journal of Modern Craft, 2011
Organically develop its own aesthetic
I use this passage as an introduction to looking at the work of Carola Tengler and her vision for developing “traditional African design” in pottery works, and in the minds of her potters at a pottery workshop in Mukono District. This description of the development of pottery in South Africa seems similar to the project at hand in various realms of fine art; but for this piece, it echoes some of the descriptions that Carola shared with me during an interview at her workshop.
At present, this dynamic of Europeans and Africans, our different relationships with finished pieces and the commitment to mastering the technique and traditional forms in order for African pottery to “organically develop its own aesthetic” is the earnest dream of Carola Tengler.
Carola Tengler is a ceramicist who spent her career making and teaching pottery in Austria, her home country. In 2003, she joined the Vision for Africa project in Mukono district, Uganda. At Vision for Africa, the leadership seeks to provide care and opportunities for orphans, from a baby home, to primary school, to vocational schools and even University sponsorships if the academic talents are evident.
The pottery workshop at Vision for Africa fits within the broader project as a vocational training. However, due to Carola’s own artistic vision, I would consider the pottery workshop a fine arts endeavor as well as vocational training.
A Vision: Uplift the uniqueness of African design
Carola shared that on a visit to Kenya in 1963, she found Kenyans beginning to envision tourist lodges. She described that the current “safari” lodge was a compromise between European sensibilities and African aesthetics. She used this analogy to say that the arts in East Africa in the last century have been subject to outside influence, often sacrificing traditional African design for outside preferences or demands.
Carola’s vision is to bring value and expertise to the traditional African forms and patterns as manifested in the field of pottery. She argues that there is a traditional African form and design that is unique to Africa, and therefore must be uplifted and used to create unique works and not works that are trying to copy other cultures’ ideals.
Carola explained that in this local pot, you can see the natural artistry of a traditional pot. The form has a heavier base and tapers towards the top. The shape is well crafted, and symmetrical. The stamping is carefully placed and subtly but thoughtfully more ornate at the top of the pot.
Local pot made for function, but lacking the artistry of traditional African design. While the form and some stamping are present, this pot does not exhibit the enduring beauty of traditional African design that we saw in the first local pot.
A pot made by Vision For Africa, seeking to use the traditional form as well as careful attention to detail in the stamping. This pot was thrown on a wheel and smoked before it was fired giving it this lustrous black sheen. Despite these contemporary touches, the fundamental design harkens back to the traditional form and the intentional simplicity of the exterior surfaces also echoes the subtle but lovely craftsmanship of the first local pot.
Design: The best pieces are perfect in their uncomplicated form and pattern
While I was visiting with Carola she was moving among students and student work and pointed out pieces that she felt had the African aesthetic. She said many students try to do too much; that the form should be beautiful but simple, that pattern is intentional but also simple, that color is minimal and simple.
It is not primitive, but spare – the best pieces are perfect in their uncomplicated form and pattern. The goal is not to emulate the intricacy or ornateness that might be found in Asian or Arabic art.
In my research of other students of “traditional African art”, I found this description by Charles Bordogna about the affective surfaces of pottery and sculpture:
“Finally, as we look on a piece of traditional African sculpture, we see that the surfaces are also aesthetically significant, for they often complement the form. Surfaces can be warmly patined or richly pigmented, eroded from weather or roughly hewed; whatever the quality, they are an essential element of the aesthetic appreciation and should be minimized.
The elements of the earth form and affect the surfaces, extending to us, the observers, a participation in the African world. Organic pigments, fluids, and the elemental matter of life are aesthetically transformed onto the objects. The very forces of the natural world imbue the objects with the primal energies of African life.
Art and life merge, not in theory, but in fact.”
Origins: The voodoo/spirits association
Carola described that in terms of ancient African art, many Africans associate aesthetic items as tools of voodoo or holding spirits that are used for specific ends. When Christianity came along, many of the ancient forms and traditional objects were seen negatively and left behind.
In a recent biennale in Austria, the Vision for Africa potters had displayed a series of masks. While masks are often seen negatively especially among Christians, Carola said the masks were a perfect fit for the theme “Inside Out” – that what comes out through the mask is the inner person. These artists, with this traditionally African form, won third prize.
Quality of the Clay: Lacking fat, sodas, chlorides
When I asked Carola about local materials, she said that the clay is not as rich as some clay you find in Europe due to the age of the African continent. The clay lacks fat, sodas, chlorides – various elements that can make clay strong enough for any end purpose.
With African clay, you must be a master of building and firing if you want to build a very tall or big ceramic sculpture. Besides experimenting with more finishes, the actual firing that comes with modern kilns is also necessary for more durable pieces which can be made more sculpturally as well as lasting beyond one human generation.
Local wood-firing reaches about 850F but an electrical kiln will fire pieces at 940F; this higher temperature is important for durability and quality of the finished pieces.
Firing and Finishes: Experimenting with local processes
Beyond form and pattern, Carola does also experiment with local firing processes, including smoking before firing and raku firing. These techniques lead to some beautiful finishes that do add a modern aesthetic to traditional forms.
The black sheen, and the multi-colored effects that can happen with oxides during raku firing result in beautiful pieces where the creator must wait for the mystery of nature’s process.
Market adaptations: Embody traditional African aesthetic through contemporary eyes
The reality for Carola and the workshop, like the reality for many contemporary artists, is that the artist is also making art for the market. The pieces that the Vision for Africa potters make for various international art exhibitions are pieces which seek to embody the traditional African aesthetic but through contemporary eyes, hands and methods.
However, the workshop also creates decorative and functional pieces that customers (mostly non-Africans) buy for their homes and gardens.
A lasting commitment to the artistic vision
To use a biblical expression, a tree is known by its fruits. The work that comes from this workshop is lovely and unique. Carola’s commitment to her artistic vision and to her students is resulting in beautiful pieces that do seem to speak to an African sensibility.
This said, she also acknowledges that finding her replacement is daunting. That with all the technical skills her potters have (her teachers and her students), very few seem to internalize and personalize the traditional African aesthetic that she values.
Whether some of this struggle is due to their context (a vocational school within a fairly Pentecostal project), or due to the fast pace of urbanization/modernization, I trust that Carola’s talents and vision will be an important piece of conversation for contemporary Ugandan artists to consider.
Abigail Bartels is a freelance writer living in Kampala.