Ronnie Watt

Elizabeth Mbatha, 1983, hand-built and glaze-decorated reduction-fired stoneware, 24,5 cm x 19 cm, Evangelical Lutheran Church Centre for Art and Craft at Rorke’s Drift, South Africa. © Ronnie Watt

Challenging Convention and Asserting Identity


The double bird vase by Elizabeth Mbatha is representative of the pottery produced between the mid-1960s and mid-1990s by women potters at the Evangelical Lutheran Church Centre for Art and Craft at Rorke’s Drift (commonly referred to as Rorke’s Drift) in South Africa. The women were members of the local black community and were coaxed by the European staff at the centre towards producing a blend of indigenous traditional craft and Western utilitarian and decorative forms. Even so, Rorke’s Drift pottery represented the agency of indigenous potters to freely and in their personal styles, interpret non-traditional forms and decorations whilst embedding cultural references in their works.

  • Ronnie Watt
    Ronnie Watt


    The discriminatory apartheid politics in twentieth-century South Africa were designed to advance the political, social and economic empowerment of the white citizenry; the  entrenchment of Western culture and values; to transform the black populace into a labour force and limit their education and training. Within that white supremacist dogma, black material culture’s only footing was its anthropological and ethnographic interest. The output of the pottery, weaving and print workshops of Rorke’s Drift came to stand in symbolic defiance of all of that.


    Rorke’s Drift grew from the missionary work of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Province Under the initial management of Peder and Ulla Gowenius who were recruited from Sweden, the centre was conceptualised for the training of black members of the local community to produce art and crafts as a means of self-support. The pottery workshop at the centre was established in 1968 by the Danish potter Peter Tyberg.


    Whilst the Zulu culture is predominant in the province, it also accommodates other cultural groups. The majority of the initial group of women recruited for the pottery workshop belonged to the Sotho group and had the skills to produce utilitarian pottery for brewing, cooking and storage in traditional forms, decorated with applied motifs and incised elements (Fig 2).h The women were also familiar with traditional Zulu pottery forms in monochromatic colors (hues of black and brown) and  decorative motifs that included pinched surfaces, geometric designs and raised linear coils. These were and continue to be produced with hand-building techniques and pit-firing.


    Figure 2 Traditional Zulu ukhamba

    Figure 2

    A traditional vessel (ukhamba) for the serving of beer in the Zulu culture, 1965, hand-built, burnished and decorated with applied raised designs (amasumpa), collected in Melmoth in KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa, 24 x 29 cm, Collection of Iziko Museums of South Africa, Cape Town, ©Michael Hall



    Figure 3 Traditional Zulu pottery vessels

    Figure 3

    Traditional Zulu vessels collected in KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa, c.1990 to 1996, various potters, hand-built, burnished and decorated with incised and raised designs, Collection of Ian Garrett, ©Ian Garrett


    The potters were introduced to Western production techniques, materials and kiln technology at the workshop. They were also shown books and magazines that exposed them to pottery forms outside of their culture and convention such as of Pueblo Indian and Nigerian pottery (Hosking, 2005, p. 33 and Gers, 2015, p. 268). It was the dictum of Rorke’s Drift to promote individual expression flowing from “an innate naivety and conceptualism” (Leeb-du Toit, 2012, p. 79) but the resulting works had to have appeal for Western consumers. In the pottery this culminated in a “composite globalised identity” (Hosking, 2005, p. 57) that married Scandinavian late-modernism and indigenous African knowledge systems. Freddie Motsamayi (2012, p. 24) described it bluntly as an example of an invented tradition in which new forms of African expression were produced for the benefit of Western patrons.


    Whilst staying for the most part within the parameters of traditional Sotho and Zulu forms, the women potters created their versions of Western forms of bowls and vases and also vessels that approached sculptural forms or were distinctly sculptural forms. The decorations which referenced indigenous culture usually covered most of the surface and were applied as incised or built features and painting in layers of slips. The works became progressively more intricate and composite with richly painted and texturally decorated surfaces (Hosking, 2005, p. 96).

    A new form that emerged in the workshop oeuvre was the “bird pot” introduced by Judith Mkhabela who worked in the studio during the 1970s. This was a pot with a pedestal base to which the head, wings and tail of a bird were added. Whether this form was Mkhabela’s own innovation is not a certain fact. It might have been modelled on the nineteenth century European hen-on-nest form (Maggs and Ward, 2011, pp. 155–156) that served as a container for fresh eggs. It is equally likely that the pot referenced two other indigenous cultural vessel forms, namely the bird-shaped earthenware vessels made by the South Sotho cultural group for possible use as water containers, water coolers or egg storage (Riep, 2011, p. 185) and the other being the totemic pig and elephant vessel forms made by the amaHlubi tribe associated with the Basotho cultural group (Garrett, 2020).Over the years this form was adapted by some of the other potters such as Elizabeth Mbatha (Fig 4).


    Figure 4 Elizabeth Mbatha 01

    Figure 4

    Elizabeth Mbatha at work in the Rorke’s Drift pottery workshop in 2014, ©Ronnie Watt


    Rorke’s Drift pottery was first . Two years later, the gallery acquired hand-built and thrown works from the studio for its permanent collection. This was significant for being the first ceramic works by black South African artists to be acquired for inclusion in a public collection during the apartheid era. The best of the pottery was selected to be sold in overseas outlets with Sweden and Germany as prime destinations. The potters set a precedent amongst South African black potters by signing their works on the feet of the pottery and further adding the date and kiln data alongside the leaf logo of Rorke’s Drift (Fig 5). This practice copied Western potters who identified their works with potter’s marks, signatures or monograms.


    Figure 5 Elizabeth Mbatha Rorkes Drift Double Bird Vase

    Figure 5

    The foot of the double bird vase bears the name of the potter Elizabeth Mbatha [sic], the kiln  data and the leaf-form logo of the Evangelical Lutheran Church Centre for Art and Craft at Rorke’s Drift, ©Ronnie Watt


    As a collective and as individuals, the potters defied tradition and convention, Western perceptions and expectations of traditional pottery. The potters preserved elements of  indigenous form and designs in their pots alongside the non-traditional features and sculptural appendages (Figs 6, 7). This illustrates the statement by the ceramics art historian Elizabeth Perrill (2008, [Sp]) that Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) of materials, methods, forms and values are not monolithic and permit an expansion of innovative aesthetics within and as a continuation of a culture.


    Figure 6 Lephina Molefe Stacked

    Figure 6

    Lephina Molefe, Stacked vessel, 1980, hand-built and glaze-decorated reduction-fired stoneware, 26 x 17 cm, Evangelical Lutheran Church Centre for Art and Craft at Rorke’s Drift, South Africa, private collection, ©Ronnie Watt



    Figure 7 Euriel Mbatha Sculptural

    Figure 7

    Euriel Mbatha, Figurative vase, 1984, hand-built and glaze-decorated reduction-fired stoneware, 21 x 13 cm, Evangelical Lutheran Church Centre for Art and Craft at Rorke’s Drift, South Africa, Collection Minette Zaaiman, ©Ronnie Watt


    The demand for Rorke’s Drift pottery started to wane in the 1990s for several reasons. Dealers and collectors broadened their interest to include the other indigenous potters who had since come to the fore. Problems with the management of the centre and financial constraints detracted from the promotion of the pottery and the recruitment of new potter talent. The quality of the pottery deteriorated after the introduction of commercial clay bodies and glazes and there was little variance in the forms and their decorations. The potters were no longer producing for the local and international collector market but had to produce works that met the expectations and budgets of tourists.


    As “tourist art”, the twenty-first century pottery of the ELC Art and Craft Centre at Rorke’s Drift reveals forms and decoration intended to meet buyers’ tastes and budgets. The purposeful re-orientation towards the tourist market to tap into that source of revenue, is not a slur on the history, aesthetics or ethos of the studio. As in the earlier works, the more recent works illustrate an entanglement of the maker and the made, relevant to a new context of time and circumstance.





    • Garret, IW. (2020). Personal correspondence.
    • Gers, W. (2015). Scorched earth: 100 Years of Southern African pottery. Johannesburg: Jacana.
    • Hosking, S. (2005). “Tradition and innovation: Rorke's Drift ceramics in the collection of the Durban Art Gallery, KwaZulu-Natal.” Unpublished MA (Fine Arts) dissertation. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.
    • Leeb-du Toit, J. (2012). Rorke’s Drift ceramic traditions in context. In J. Stretton (Ed.), All Fired Up: Conversations between storerooms and classrooms (pp. 77-81). Durban: Durban Art Gallery.
    • Maggs, T. & Ward, V. (2011). Judith Mkhabela: An inspirational potter from KwaZulu-Natal. Southern African Humanities (23), September, 151–71.
    • Motsamayi, MF. (2012). “The Bernstein Collection of Rorke’s Drift ceramics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal: A catalogue raisonné.” Unpublished MA (Art History) dissertation. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.
    • Perrill, E. (2008). Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) & Zulu Ceramic Arts: Azolina MaMncube Ngema, One Woman’s Story. Interpreting Ceramics 10, [Sp]. Retrieved from www.interpretingceramics.com/issue010/articles/01.htm.
    • Riep, DMM. (2011). “House of the Crocodile: south Sotho art and history in southern Africa.” Unpublished PhD thesis. University of Iowa, Iowa City. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.17077/etd.0dzbhfvg.



    published November 2020