A conversation with Andile Dyalvane on art, healing, and communing with ancestors.
The word clay, in Xhosa, translates literally to “Mother Earth.” In ceramist Andile Dyalvane’s hands, that earth is sculpted into evocative vessels that reflect the connections that exist between humans and the land. Driven by a deep spiritual bond to his Xhosa heritage, the South African artist (who is also a community healer in the AmaXhosa tribe) approaches his large-scale pieces as mediums for cultural preservation, celebration, and even communing with ancestors. As he says, “Art is a bridge to join what is fragmented or separated in the world.”
Born in Ngobozana, a small village in the Eastern Cape province, Dyalvane grew up farming and watching after his family’s cattle, an experience that nurtured a powerful link to the land and the culture. That foundation drives his ceramic work today—a practice that has made him one of the contemporary design world’s most sought after ceramists, with work included in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, Vitra Design Museum, and Iziko South African National Gallery, among others. Now based in Cape Town, Dyalvane leads Imiso Ceramics, a studio he cofounded with fellow standout ceramist Zizipho Poswa. We spoke with Dyalvane about the path that led him here; objects’ roles in healing, restoration, and celebration; and his intentions for the year ahead.
Your ceramic works are framed as vessels for storytelling, specifically around your Xhosa heritage and your own personal, contemporary journey. Can you tell us more about the stories you aim to share through your pieces?
I tell stories via the medium of clay, many of which are based on my experiences growing up in the rural Eastern Cape, South Africa. My culture, heritage, and traditions guide much of my narrative collections. Each is an expression of gratitude for this moment, as well as an appreciation for my past, ancestry, and purpose—all elements that continue to energize and drive my creative expression.
My narratives are focused on collective stories: social and economic histories, and culturally conscious highlights of my childhood memories. I believe that memory plays a huge part in preserving this consciousness, so telling stories with accompanying visual and tactile guides in the form of vessels, sculptures, and objects help to communicate a great deal.
I’ve read that your first encounters with clay were as a child in the countryside. What drew you to clay as a medium from the beginning, and how did you ultimately learn to work with it at a professional level?
When I was a child, clay was simply a part of my play during the hours spent herding my father’s cattle, as it was for many young boys doing the same at the time. It only became my passion later on when I recognized and experienced its greater capacity at the start of my college studies. The exposure that further education gave me to a celebrated world of creativity inspired me to grasp opportunities with all my spirit. I was spotted sketching by one of my elder brother’s friends, directed to a college, and financed to study by my brother.
I then went on to work, during which time a residency program in Denmark resulted in a scholarship to study further at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (then P. E Technikon). On completion of my studies, I returned to the job I had left, only to gradually transition to my career as an artist, boosted by a sold-out exhibition at the Irma Stern Gallery (UCT). Imiso Ceramics was then founded in mid-2006.
I understand you also work as a community healer for the AmaXhosa tribe, and that your ceramics, in moments, draw on this experience. Your design pieces have sometimes been presented as vehicles for healing and even, as you’ve said, “restoring that which has been lost from my community.” Would you tell us a bit more about how you perceive these objects as tools for healing and restoration?
Yes, I have been called to my path by community elders and members. Part of this role is to remind generations to acknowledge with gratitude their origins, gifted purpose, and greatness, and to nurture legacy. The strength that we create from is energized through a spirit of unity, and it’s the practice of Ubuntu that guides this. [Ubuntu is the African philosophy that asserts that society, not a transcendent being, gives human beings their humanity.]
Believing that community is an expansive family unit, we participate in collective healing in the form of ceremonies, group councils, and milestone celebrations, to mention just a few. I have acknowledged my own gift, which is, in large part, to use clay to create objects imbued with ancestral unifying energy that initiate and spark collective pride and strengthen community morale.
I often say that I am but a vessel for the messages my ancestors want to convey. Art is a bridge to join what is fragmented or separated in the world.
Click above to watch Dyalvane discuss his iThongo series, which honors ancestors who were forcibly removed from their home. Video courtesy of Marius van Rensberg / Southern Guild
So much of your work reflects on cultural and spiritual connections to the land across generations. Tell us about your perception of the role that land plays—both as inspiration and as medium—in your practice?
Ceramics is synonymous with record-keeping. Civilizations studied, evolution, economies recognized and learnt from, and celebrated craftsmanship have all been documented archaeologically. As a medium, clay, in essence, is crucial as representing space, which physically equates to land (mass, matter, energy, etc.); earth; ancestry; lineage—or migratory—maps; as well as our present and future visions; much like our DNA, in a way.
The land binds our experiences and memories here, as in many places, largely associated with the trauma of politically forced displacement for biased economic gain. The contentious nature of our relationship with land reflects our degree of separation from nature herself. Clay presents an opportunity to reconnect and heal through its body; a way to disperse and ground generational wounds collectively. I am grateful that my work creates space.
Tell us a bit about your making process please.
A process of visual epiphanies channel through me, mostly related to memories, dreams, and conversations pertaining to cultural practices. I then release these visions in sketches, followed by hand-building or coiling the resultant forms with clay, intermittently leaving them to dry until they’re leather hard. Reshaping, textures, and clay finishes follow, after which the creations are stored in our dry room until bone hard.
A first bisque firing then strengthens all these elements. After, the piece is glazed with color and set in the kiln for a final glaze firing (usually of up to 1200° degrees). My choice of clay is primarily terracotta, as it relates to the clay soil of home. Post unpacking the final kiln firing, photographs, creation review, and narrative consolidation conclude the studio-slash-making process.
What do you most hope viewers take away from your work?
The viewers’ own energy is the unifying, necessary, and reciprocal spirit that my offering requires to exist fully in its purpose. This conscious exchange is what I hope for, along with a deeply shared gratitude for all our gifts.
What brings you the most joy as an artist?
Many things! Serendipitous moments experienced alone or with family; shared excitement with my team in the studio; navigating a peculiar alchemy during my builds; and music's energetic momentum—an essential joy, particularly while working and creating.
What are you working on now? What’s up next?
There are more stories to tell, new experiences in building within different spaces, and residency projects both locally and internationally—starting with a Tankwa Artscape Residency organized by the Kwasukasukela Arts Collective in a Karoo Desert location. I also have my sights set on Japan thereafter.
We’re kickstarting 2022 by shifting parts of my business toward prime efficiency in accordance with our needs at Imiso Ceramics, while also further developing my most recent offerings shared at Design Miami in 2021, showcased by Southern Guild.
Additionally, this year, our legacy project will hopefully build a creative center at my old primary school in my home village of Ngobozana, for both children and the broader community. It will highlight the ethos of sustainable and regenerative practices as teaching methods from inception to completion, in order to nurture legacies.
Finally, in light of the past few years, has your perspective on the role of the artist or the maker—and your own work in particular—changed or been reinforced in any way?
Yes. My long-held belief that clay—and its inherent, connecting soulfulness—would be welcomed and appreciated, and in fact, celebrated globally, through ceramic arts, has only been reinforced.♦
*Dyalvane’s ceramics are available through Southern Guild and Friedman Benda. Shop his pieces here.