Cape Town ceramicist Zizipho Poswa received a breathless call from Trevyn and Julian McGowan, of Cape Town gallery Southern Guild, in late 2018. The couple were at Design Miami, where they had just placed two of Poswa’s glazed stoneware pieces with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). As the facts of the transaction settled, so Poswa’s emotions skittered. It had only been a few months since she had debuted her first art pieces, boldly coloured abstract totems that speak about her journey as a Xhosa woman, in a group exhibition in Cape Town.
‘I was still unsure about my work,’ says the Umtata-born ceramicist. ‘I didn’t think my career would get to this level so soon.’ Poswa is not being modest. The two sculptures acquired by LACMA – one is pillar-box red, the other marine blue with gashes of red, and both are titled Ukukhula (‘growth’ in Xhosa)– were only her fifth and sixth personal studio pieces. By this measure, Poswa’s march into the museum world has been brisk, circumventing the usual procedures – extensive production, solo shows, fawning press, patient waiting – that typically preface institutional recognition.
Don’t be fooled by this tale of instant success: Poswa’s ceramic art is the fruit of nearly two decades of commitment to clay as expressive medium and sustainable business. ‘In certain respects, it has been a long journey for Zizi from making functional ceramics to pure art,’ says Trevyn McGowan. ‘When she did eventually turn her hand to art, she made an effortless leap in scale and power.’ The gallerist variously uses words like ‘totemic’, ‘sensual’, ‘confident’ and ‘vibrant’ to characterise the distinctive presence of Poswa’s art pieces.
McGowan first met Poswa more than a decade ago, while scouting local design for the export market. The search led her to Imiso, a boutique ceramic studio founded in 2006 by five friends – including Poswa and acclaimed ceramicist Andile Dyalvane. The studio, whose name means ‘tomorrow’ in Xhosa, was a leap of faith for Poswa. Unlike Dyalvane, who studied ceramics and was mentored by Chris Silverston of local design studio Potter’s Workshop, Poswa came to the medium with a background in textile design and fashion retail.
The early years of Imiso were tough. ‘We had no infrastructure for anything,’ recalls Poswa. A sympathetic landlord provided the fledgling clay business with a kiln. Three of the founding team fell away, leaving only Poswa and Dyalvane. Both are from the Eastern Cape, the heartland of South Africa’s Xhosa culture. They first met in Port Elizabeth, as students – he dated her best friend. Evidence of their contrasting studio output is displayed in Imiso’s multipurpose space at The Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock, Cape Town’s new creative hub. Known internationally for his unique terracotta and stoneware pieces that reference his rural upbringing, Dyalvane’s Imiso studio output is more expressive and pop, with motifs inspired by ritual scarification, Picasso, and Cape Town’s harbour. By contrast, Poswa’s delicate utilitarian pinch pots feature bold colour and surface treatments that integrate patterns inspired by traditional Xhosa textiles.
To illustrate how she develops her ideas, Poswa plays a clip of a cousin’s Xhosa initiation ceremony in the Eastern Cape, showing a group of women wearing ankle-length umbhaco skirts and moving in jubilant procession. The origin of the stipples and symmetrical lines on her pinch pots becomes clear. ‘I always think in terms of colour, pattern and texture,’ explains Poswa.
This stood her in good stead when, two years ago, Julian McGowan encouraged her to contribute personal work to an exhibition titled ‘Extra Ordinary’. Two unrelated events influenced the tall clay forms she produced. In 2016, Imiso acquired a new kiln capable of firing larger pieces, in the lead up to Dyalvane’s first US solo show at New York’s Friedman Benda, and this provided Poswa with the chance to scale up. More importantly, she was inspired by a visit to the Eastern Cape. ‘It was a time to reflect and revisit childhood memories,’ she says of the trip, which reminded her of the ‘strength and resilience’ of rural Xhosa women. Although notionally abstract, Poswa’s three debut pieces, titled Umthwalo (load), directly evoked the labours of rural women, in particular the bearing of loads on their heads.
For her next series, Ukukhula, Poswa looked inward, at her own professional biography. The works acquired by LACMA, whose holdings also include a terracotta pot by Kenyan-British ceramic artist Magdalene Odundo (see W*240), are an expression of personal growth – ‘about me growing in the industry, growing taller’, she says. Measuring over a metre tall, Ukukhula 1 features protruding jagged triangular forms, while Ukukhula 2 comes with agglomerations of studio shavings added to its surface.
Energised by the response to these recent works, Poswa has been working on a half-dozen new sculptures. The new work references grinding stones and traditional wooden maize stampers, which she noticed while attending her grandmother’s funeral. ‘I am still exploring my background, where I come from,’ she says.
As originally featured in the October 2019 issue of Wallpaper* (W*247) – on newsstands now
Receive our daily digest of inspiration, escapism and design stories from around the world direct to your inbox
Sean O’Toole is writer, editor and curator based in Cape Town. He has published two books, most recently a 2021 monograph on the expressionist painter Irma Stern, as well as edited three volumes of cultural essays, including 'The Journey: New Positions on African Photography', which received a New York Times critics’ pick for Best Art Books 2021. His exhibition projects include 'Photo book! Photo-book! Photobook!' at A4 Arts Foundation, Cape Town.
Hella Jongerius named Honorary Royal Designer for Industry 2023
The Dutch designer received the Honorary Royal Designer for Industry 2023 accolade alongside creatives from different disciplines
By Rosa Bertoli Published
London restaurant and tequila bar Ixchel brings Mexico’s timeless flavour to every sip and bite
On London’s King’s Road, Ixchel offers an unmissable fusion of Mexican art, cuisine and atmosphere
By Sofia de la Cruz Published
Matthew M Williams is leaving Givenchy
American designer Matthew M Williams is set to exit his role as creative director of Givenchy after a three-year tenure
By Jack Moss Published
Sarabande opens one-stop London store in time for the festive season
The Sarabande Foundation has opened a new permanent art, interiors and fashion store in London
By Hannah Silver Published
Now Gallery presents the vibrant culture of ‘A Young South Africa’ captured through the lens
Now Gallery’s ‘A Young South Africa, Human Stories’ showcases six inspiring photographers for the 2023
By Tianna Williams Published
‘Women in Revolt!’ at Tate Britain is a deliciously angry tour de force of feminist art
‘Women in Revolt!’ puts feminist art from 1970 – 1990 under the spotlight at Tate Britain
By Hannah Silver Published
From Nabokov to Miffy: Liu Ye on his cultural references
Artist Liu Ye tells us what inspires him, as his exhibition ‘Naive and Sentimental Painting’ is on show in London
By Hannah Silver Published
Christina Quarles on contorting your body to fit into the frame
Christina Quarles presents ‘Tripping Over My Joy’ at Pilar Corrias’ new flagship Mayfair space
By Katie Tobin Published
V&A East announces ‘The Music Is Black: A British Story’, its first major exhibition
London’s V&A East to examine the cultural impact of Black British music with its inaugural exhibition in 2025
By Hannah Silver Published
Hiroshi Sugimoto reflects on time and truth ahead of his London retrospective
As ‘Hiroshi Sugimoto: Time Machine’ opens at Hayward Gallery, the artist tells us of his guiding force, and why his Seascapes always end up in the bedroom
By Danielle Demetriou Published
MJ Harper’s performance piece at London’s Koko will close Frieze Week in style
Artist MJ Harper will premiere ‘Arias for a New World’ at Koko in London this Sunday, 15 October 2023
By Amah-Rose Abrams Published