Rorke’s Drift Pottery | Beyond post-colonial patronage.

Ronnie Watt - 2014, Art At Work Today

(Published in the Conference Proceedings of the International Conference of the Taiwan Ceramics Biennale, 2014.)


From the mid-1960s and into the 1980s which was a period of particularly repressive politics in South Africa, the pottery produced by the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) Arts and Crafts Centre at Rorke’s Drift, was hailed as a significant expression of Zulu-Sotho tradition and culture in an idiom that would appeal to western patrons. Utilising western production techniques and for the most part guided by pottery teachers from abroad, the potters innovated their traditional pot making into the crafting of novel forms which retained deep-rooted cultural symbolism. Rorke’s Drift ceramics were the first by black crafters to be acquired for a South African public art collection at a time when black arts and crafts were politically shunned. Three decades later, Rorke’s Drift pottery no longer commands attention as objets d’art but has an appeal as curiosities and curios. The Rorke’s Drift potters deliver proof that ‘African’ craft is plastic, and that the pots, even with their commercialised aesthetics, cannot be dismissed as cultural caricatures. Post-colonial patronage funded and promoted the Rorke’s Drift pottery workshop. When that fervour waned, the survival of a particular expression of craft hinged on the resilience of cultural meaning rather than of form.


Rorke’s Drift, ceramics, craft, post-colonial, indigenous, westernisation, authenticity, meaning, transformation, integrity.


1970 was a year of great significance for black craft potters in South Africa. In that year, the Durban Art Gallery acquired 11 works produced in the pottery workshop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) Art and Craft Centre at Rorke’s Drift, for its permanent collection. It happened in the era of fierce, repressive apartheid politics which sought to impose white supremacy and deny blacks any participation and expression in a multi-racial society. The Rorke’s Drift pots were to be the first works by contemporary black crafters to feature in a hitherto segregated public collection.

Through exhibitions in South Africa, Sweden and the USA, Rorke’s Drift’s pottery, weaving and prints gained international recognition for innovation of a cultural heritage, expressed in forms which reflected indigenous origin and meaning but in an idiom that appealed to the Western mind set. Collectors, galleries and museums vied to own and exhibit Rorke’s Drift pots alongside those crafted by their western contemporaries working in a predominantly Anglo-Oriental style. By the turn of the century and outside of the museum and gallery domains, Rorke’s Drift pottery was for the most part considered de minimi. In a free and democratic South Africa there was no longer a pressing need for foreign nurturing of marginalised people and their marginalised craft. Rorke’s Drift could not compete with the aggressive marketing of more fashionable ‘indigenous’ art - the pots came to stand in the shadow of ceramics-as-art, and the workshop itself was not rejuvenated with new talent and vigour.

This does not mean that Rorke’s Drift pottery must be considered a mere relic of post-colonial patronage, that it has no share in the contemporary cultural crafts of South Africa and that it has no relevance in the debate about craft as a making of identity and meaning. The opposite is true: Rorke’s Drift pottery proves that an indigenous African craft can adopt or reject or adapt to outsider influences, and retain its integrity.

A short history of the Rorke’s Drift pottery workshop

The early history of the pottery workshop has been thoroughly documented by Sarah Hosking (2005), Ian Calder (undated), Calder and Berit Sahlström (2004), Mathodi Freddie Motsamayi (2012) and others. In the early 1960s, Helge Fosseus, head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) in the south-east region of South Africa, envisaged creating self-help craft groups to assist blacks earn some income. Fosseus gained support for the project in Sweden and recruited teaching staff. Craft and art teaching initially focussed on sewing, weaving, drawing, painting and printing. In 1963, the ELC set up its arts and craft centre at Rorke’s Drift near Dundee in what is now the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Three workshops were dedicated to weaving, sewing and printmaking and in 1968, a pottery workshop was added.

From the very inception, there was a gender division in the workshop which continues to the present day. Women were recruited to handbuild pots and men joined the workshop to be trained in throwing pots on the wheel. The rationale for this was that these women, though predominantly from the Sotho culture but living in a Zulu community, were practising crafters of hand-built pots such as mirifi for brewing, pitsa for cooking and other domestic pots (umsamo) and in particular the ukhamba (plural izikhamba) for the low-alcohol beer (utshwala). The Sotho tradition of making pots is the coiling technique with decorations in red terracotta colours with a unique thickened lip. In Zulu pottery tradition, pots are coiled and decorated in brown and black colours which are burnished at the leather-hard stage, fired a second time to produce a glossy black surface and then polished with cow fat or waxes. Both cultures added decorative elements as applied motifs or incised into the surface or a combination of both. Zulu motifs included raised bumps (amasumpa), pinched surfaces and geometric designs of hatched and cross-hatched lines and grooves, raised linear coils, zigzags and triangles which are borrowed from designs and repeat patterns on traditional Zulu mats (isithebe), Zulu basketry and beadwork. [1,2,3,4,5]

The men were all Zulu and produced wheel-thrown pots with a distinctive feel for western utilitarian forms with the addition of handles where required. The decorative work was quite different with more muted colours and the designs scratched into the surface in bands and cartouches which addressed the forms of the works. The linear and figurative designs were strongly influenced by the linocuts and etchings produced in the centre’s graphics workshop. Two of the men in fact attended the graphics classes and transposed those experiences onto their pottery. [6] The narratives addressed cultural life, identity and – but in a less explicit manner than the artists in the graphics workshop – also made social commentary. The familiarity of form and the decorative work which brought the men’s work closer to art-craft, may explain why the men’s work consistently held greater appeal and today command substantially higher values than the women’s works.

External influence

What the ELC mission sought to achieve, was “indigenous authenticity” [7] in the craft and art. Strictly speaking, the pottery was neither indigenous nor authentic because it adopted non-traditional techniques, forms and meaning. Authors writing about the pottery have used differing terminology to describe the fusion of western aspirations and traditional practise. Hosking called it a “composite globalised identity” [8], Mags & Ward wrote of “interwoven … African tradition and Scandinavian Enlightenment” [9], for Calder it was a “hybridity … in the conflation of Scandinavian graphic design and indigenous sources” [10], Calder & Sahlström considered it “Convergences of indigenous African and introduced Nordic systems of knowledge and pedagogical discourses” [11], and in Motsamayi’s [12] view, it was “examples of ‘invented traditions’, that is new forms of African expression intended mainly for Western patrons”. The external influence on Rorke’s Drift can not be denied but the craft was sufficiently resilient to retain distinctive essences of traditional identity and material culture but was also sufficiently plastic to absorb new forms and a new language of expression. There was no blatant pandering to the tastes of westerners – whether teachers or buyers - but a willing exploration and interpretation of the ‘other’. The potters, notably the women, had the licence to create forms that were western in concept but which drew on their own cultural heritage: transforming bowls and vases into sculptural forms such as the bird-pots which were probably modelled on 19th century European hen-on-nest forms. [13] This was an “augmentation” rather than a “rupture” of tradition, say Calder & Sahlström. [14].

The Rorke’s Drift potters set a precedent in distinctly naming themselves as the crafters/artists of their works. It was not common practise amongst South African black crafters to establish individuality nor did buyers and collectors insist on that. Anitra Nettleton of the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Arts (2010) points to the fact that the anonymity of African crafters earlier underscored Western perception of what was authentic and different. She then argues that by promoting crafters within the art hierarchy, their works were elevated from being beautiful functional objects in an ethnographic context to being largely “use-free” beautiful objects outside of their cultures. Rorke’s Drift pottery most certainly fits this scenario. It did not take long for collectors to recognise the individual genius of the potters rather than the collective genius of the workshop, and pursue the named works of the most inventive and accomplished potters. The pottery of Dinah Molefe and Elizabeth Mbatha assumed a status of greater ‘collectability’ amongst the works of the women hand-builders and amongst the men, the thrown pots of Gordon Mbatha and Joel Sibisi were considered to be de rigueur to complete a representative Rorke’s Drift collection. (Some 46 years later, Elizabeth Mbatha and Gordon Mbatha remain active potters at the workshop.)

Rorke’s Drift and the post-post-colonial angst

The ‘engineering’ [15] of traditional black pottery for works that have appeal and value for users and collectors outside of the culture of origin, has been met with some angst. This may be valid in cases where the works are created on demand, become mere commercial replications, assume entirely untraditional forms and accrue artificial value. The western exploitation of African culture in the post-colonial era, states Joseph M. Nyasani (1997), is no different from the “cultur[al] emasculations” at the dawn of colonialism and leaves “black Africa … painfully crucified on the cross of blackmailers, arm-twisters and their forever more enslaving technologies”. [16] Nyasani’s rather acerbic view varies only in degree with current opinion that Rorke’s Drift pottery produced after the mid-1990s, progressively showed a loss of imaginative interpretation of traditional form while favouring works with commercial appeal. The material quality most certainly deteriorated with the introduction of commercial clay as opposed to the former locally sourced clay, new glazes and firing in an electric kiln. Polychrome decorative work made way for mostly black- or metallic copper-surfaced works with the occasional dab of a bright colour. Forms are now replicated in multiples with nominal variance in textured surface decorations.

Jill Addleson, former curator of the Durban Art Gallery who was instrumental in the earliest Rorke’s Drift acquisitions, laments the decline of contemporary Rorke’s Drift works and that “any attempts at innovation are largely in the form of cosmetic decoration” [17] and simply do not match the caliber of the earlier works. The criticism of contemporary Rorke’s Drift work is in a way a romanticising of the earlier works and of the post-colonial intervention to create and steer the centre’s workshops, showcase black talent, make a statement about the marginalising of black culture and capture international attention for the works. Those objectives were met and even exceeded and set the example for other black craft co-operatives such as the Ardmore Ceramics Studio in South Africa, and the Kolonyama and Mantenga craft centres in the neighbouring countries, of respectively, Lesotho and Swaziland. Of these, only Ardmore remains active with a firm footing in the craft-art ceramics market.

From craft to tourist art

After the foreign and local teachers left the workshop and with only nominal guidance and management from the sponsor, the potters became reliant on sales to visitors and tourists for whom they had to produce suitable works. There was a recent collaborative partnership with a South African home furnishings retailer to ‘fuse’ Rorke’s Drift designs on tiles with printed textiles. [18] One may question whether the exercise raised awareness of Rorke’s Drift as a centre of craft excellence or merely emphasised that the workshop’s survival was becoming dependent on its commercially-orientated output.

The re-orientation towards the tourist market is not a slur on the workshop’s history because as craft artefacts in museums and collections, the earlier pottery retain their integrity as things in their own right as well as things with meaning. Each of those pots remains a locus of the entanglement between man and material in a specific time and under specific circumstances. To try to continue the earlier Rorke’s Drift pottery ethics and aesthetics at a time when South Africa’s socio-political history has already been re-written, would be an exercise in dressing up the new pottery in old clothes for the sake of nostalgia.

As tourist ‘art’, the Rorke’s Drift pottery assume forms and decoration whose primary objective is to serve as collectable ornaments and functional wares and attract buyers… cultural curiosities rather than cultural caricatures. The exterior forms, decorations and prices address the expectations for something that is ‘Africanesque’, quaint, useful and affordable. Is this any different to the approach to making by any other indigenous crafters and artists whose works, as defined by Bennetta Jules-Rosette, are “the output of a negotiation between producers and consumers” [19] at (as says Eric Silverman) “the confluence of modernity and tradition”? [20]. More significant is the statement by Nettleton [21] that the crafters and artists “developed forms and designs which were intended to demonstrate their participation in the modern world, rather than to mark their African identity”. This does not imply the abandonment or subjugation of a cultural identity because that would rob the Rorke’s Drift pottery of all relevance. Instead, the potters are challenged to find a balance between their own ‘other-ness’ and what the consumer market perceives and desires that ‘other’ to be.

So what comes next?

In the future day-to-day repetitive making, it might just happen that some works will emerge that set them apart as a new generation of signature Rorke’s Drift works. Those works might have new or re-interpreted forms and styles of decoration. However, unlike the era of the postcolonial intervention, the innovation must come from within the ranks of the Sotho-Zulu potters themselves through their own creative genius, in context of their evolving circumstances and the dynamics of inter-cultural contact. To want to ‘save’ Rorke’s Drift pottery implies that there is something inherently wrong with the current model to the extent that outsiders want to salvage and preserve what lies in the past. The past can not be re-invented… but the future can be imagined.

Source references

1 Perrill, p 3-4
2 Mags & Ward, p 151
3 Motsamayi, pp 9 and 41
4 Hosking, pp 83 and 90
5 Calder
6 Hosking, pp. 11-13, 20
7 Calder
8 Hosking, p 57
9 Mags & Ward, p 152
10 Calder
11 Calder & Sahlström
12 Motsamayi, p 24
13 Mags & Ward, pp 155–156
14 Calder & Sahlström
15 Smith
16 Nyasani
17 Addleson
18 Voiht
19 Jules-Rosette, quoted by Stevens and Kruger, p45
20 Silverman, quoted by Stevens and Kruger, p 48
21 Nettleton, p 7

Sources cited

Addleson, Jill. 2014. ELC Ceramics Revisited. Correspondence with author. Uploaded to C:UsersRonnieAppDataLocalMicrosoftWindowsTemporary Internet FilesContent.IE5BFBABY1UELC CERAMICS REVISITED.htm
Calder, Ian. n.d. “The inception of Rorke’s Drift Pottery Workshop: tradition and innovation.” Artworx: Selected art and craft from kwaZuluNatal, South Africa. (O) Accessed 3 December 2014. Available at
Calder, Ian and Sahlström, Berit. 2004. Crafting Freedom: South Africa and Sweden at Rorke’s Drift Art and Craft Centre. Seminar for Development Studies. (O) Accessed 2 January 2014. Available at
Hosking, Sarah. 2005. Tradition and innovation: Rorke’s Drift ceramics in the collection of the Durban Art Gallery, KwaZulu-Natal. (O) Accessed 6 December 2013. Available at
Jules-Rosette, Bennetta. 1984. The messages of tourist art: an African semiotic system in comparative perspectives. New York. Plenum Press. Quoted in Stevens, Ingrid & Kruger, Runette. 2011. “Contemporary African and South African Issues: Art, Craft and Design” in Visual Culture I, edited by Basson, Eunice. Pretoria. UNISA
Nyasani, Joseph M. 1997. The African Psyche. Nairobi: University of Nairobi and Theological Printing Press Ltd, quoted by Isiguzo, Andrew Ifeanyi. n.d. African Culture and Symbolism: A Rediscovery of the Seam of a Fragmented Identity. (O) Accessed 16 December 2013. Available at
Maggs, Tim and Ward, Val. 2011. “Judith Mkhabela, an inspirational potter from KwaZulu-Natal.” In Southern African Humanities 23: 151–71, September 2011, KwaZulu-Natal Museum. (O) Accessed 31 December 2013. Available at
Motsamayi, Mathodi Freddie. 2012. The Bernstein Collection of Rorke’s Drift ceramics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal: a catalogue raisonné. (O) Accessed 6 December 2013. Available at
Nettleton, Anitra. 2010. “Life in a Zulu Village: Craft and the Art of Modernity in South Africa.” In The Journal of Modern Craft, Volume 3—Issue 1, March 2010, pp. 55–78. (O) Accessed 24 February 2014. Available at
Perrill, Elizabeth. 2008. “Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) & Zulu Ceramic Arts.” In Interpreting Ceramics, Issue 10, 2008. (O) Accessed 18 November 2013. Available at
Smith, Steven. 2010. “African pottery in South Africa: Life after the village.” In The Journal of Modern Craft (no edition details). (O) Accessed 27 December 2013. Available at
Silverman, Eric Kline. 1999. “Tourist art as the crafting of identity in the Sepik River (Papua New Guinea)”, in Unpacking culture: art and commodity in colonial and postcolonial worlds, edited by Phillips, R.B. and Steiner, B. Berkely. University of California Press. Quoted in Stevens, Ingrid & Kruger, Runette. 2011. “Contemporary African and South African Issues: Art, Craft and Design” in Visual Culture I, edited by Basson, Eunice. Pretoria. UNISA
Stevens, Ingrid and Kruger, Runette. 2011. “Contemporary African and South African Issues: Art, Craft and Design”. In Visual Culture I, edited by Basson, Eunice. Pretoria. UNISA
Voiht, Christiane. n.d. Mr Price Home - Colab Project - Rorke’s Drift ELC Art & Craft Centre. (O) Accessed 6 February 2014. Available at