Moulding A Nation:

The History of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe’s Ceramic Collection
Fundamentally earthy, clay comes in wet lumps, but with love, skill and effort can be transformed into incredible things – the useful, the beautiful and the

ornamental. It’s a very old technology, and a critical one for human civilisation, allowing for the storage of water, food, oil, medicines, enabling us to eat grains.
Ceramics are incredible materials, and that we are just scraping the surface of what it might be possible to do with what is, essentially, baked earth. The role of ceramics as chronological tools, an index of past ethno – linguistic identity as well as functioning tools is central to the narrative of countries. They represent continuity of settlement and encounters with external influences. It suggests a shift in social authority from the family home to the wider community and the growing influence of economic wealth and individual leadership. Understanding ceramics is key to understanding socio economic activity. The country’s narrative is heightened by the longstanding presence of ceramics but necessitated by the absence of contextual data.

Moulding A Nation brings new insights into what life was like for the people whose history is represented by the ceramics in the Gallery’s collection through further study, helping us to learn about where the inhabitants came from, what food they cooked and ate, their health, and the craft activities that took place in their houses. This is a chance to also explore what is possible within the medium of clay. The exhibition explores the utilitarian value as well as the purely formal expression of artistic and aesthetic value in ceramics; the cultural and social implications of the ceramics that have been collected by the National Gallery of Zimbabwe.

From pottery of the early Iron Age of Zimbabwe to much more contemporary ceramics and artworks encompassing ceramics, the exhibition charts in a small way the influences that have shaped us as a nation. Examples of works in the exhibition include traditional pottery which has intricate patterns and designs etched or painted on the vessels. The patterns follow tradition and describe the potter’s district, rank, clan and lineage. Particular pots were made for particular purposes, classes of people and some were buried with the dead, holding offerings of food and drink for the spirits.

There is reference to some important archeological pottery sites in Zimbabwe which include the Chipuriro areas that harbour 13th and 14th century pottery at Mbagazewa, the Musengezi graves, north of Harare, that stretch from Lomagundi to Shamva, and Tasazingwe, near Bulawayo, which contain pottery and other artifacts known as the Leopards Kopje tradition which show intricately designed pottery. Reference is also made to the Mapela tradition of pottery which is situated near the Shashe River and the Mapungubwe tradition near the Limpopo Rver, and the Ingombe Ilede rare traditional pottery of the Zambezi people. This sophisticated pottery of the Zambezi people is decorated with cowrie shells, Indian glass beads, beaten gold and leather straps. There are important Zimbabwean ceramic relics: shambakodzi, pfuko, mbiya and hadyana are specific types of traditional pottery with different specific purposes used to serve beer as well as various dishes and relishes.

A calling card for past identities, the ceramics in the National Gallery of Zimbabwe’s collection interrogate the shifting connections and interregional relationships which Zimbabweans have forged over the past millennia with other communities. They are critical to understanding the cultural dynamics and trade relationships with surrounding regions. The traditional form has morphed over the years to assume new identities as the communities adjusted to new contact situations. They are a vital source of technological, economic and social insight and provide a telescoped understanding of ethnic relations.
An exhibition by Lilian Chaonwa and Fadzai Veronica Muchemwa

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