A few years ago, I traveled to Cape Town, South Africa and encountered Majolandile (Andile) Dyalvane’s work at the studio he cofounded, Imiso Ceramics. The work on display was from two collections: Africasso, which takes inspiration from Pablo Picasso, who had been inspired by Africa; and Scarified, which draws from ancient African traditions of scarification. As diverse as those inspiration points were, the distinct vision and hand of a quietly assured, powerful, and rooted artist were evident. I had the chance to visit Andile in his new studio in Salt River, Cape Town in February of this year. He spoke of the deep cultural and spiritual elements of his practice and how he manifests them while advocating for cultural preservation.

How long have you been working with clay, Andile?

Professionally I’d say it’s been 25 years but growing up in the countryside, I’ve always played with clay. I would consider that as working with clay, because I was exposed to it back when I was a boy. When all the boys were running around in the field, they would collect clay and make objects. At the time, we did not have the knowledge and technology of firing it and making it permanent because no one who was making pottery. Art itself was not a subject. People made stuff for everyday use: a stool, a utensil, a knife, an axe or a shovel, something like that. They would be made out of metal, wood, or wire, but not clay.

Then you grew up in a village and a community where people make things for everyday use.

That’s correct. Not to decorate houses or to sell—you make it so you can use it.

The vocabulary for art or design did not exist in terms of what we understood and were exposed to, but language and culture have something to do with that. We had [the knowledge] a long time ago because people made interesting, beautiful things. Special people were known to make spoons, stools, dishes, and bowls out of metal or wood. But it was nothing to compete about or to sell or buy; people were exchanging, using, and borrowing things from each other and that’s it.

How did you find yourself working with clay?

I went to school through Grade 12 in the Eastern Cape in Ngobozana, the village I grew up in. During my schooling, art, craft or any sort of creative subject were not taught. But when the teacher was teaching us in some subjects, I would find myself drifting away and would start doodling. I used to get in trouble for that. I drew people’s faces, doing portraits by just [observing] them and referring to illustrated books and story books. I was fascinated by crayons, charcoal and things like that, and I would attempt to [use] them. I practiced a lot.

When I finished my schooling, I thought if I went to Cape Town I could get a job or study art—without knowing what art is. When I enrolled at art college in Cape Town, I was exposed to everything that has to do with creativity, art, craft, and design. I couldn’t believe I would spend the whole day playing and enjoying. Ceramics was an obvious choice because it reminded me of my childhood, and then drawing—everything we do starts with the drawing. I chose those two and I’ve been doing so since.

How did your family respond to you choosing to go to art school in Cape Town?

They were very supportive, even though professions like a teacher, nurse, doctor or lawyer were seen as the best choices because of social security and income. But they could see that there was something about me always wanting to do things by hand, fixing things, taking things apart, and throwing a lot as well.

 [My family] said, ‘Well, it makes sense. Go for it.’ One of my older brothers paid for my first year of school and said, ‘Just make sure you do us proud. That’s all you have to do; you don’t have to pay me back or anything.’ I think I’ve managed to do that because it’s one of those things you pay forward. The family was very supportive, because other than this career in the art of ceramics, there’s a purpose as well. They could see what it is doing to me and those around me when I’m in my element, doing what I’m doing.

In terms of how you express yourself and your Xhosa culture in your work, was that always a conscious choice?

It was not conscious. When I started to embrace my culture and put it out there, I began to work backwards in a sense. I looked back on the things I did as a child. People thought I was a bit mad because while everybody was running around doing things, I would just be drawn into a piece of clay and make some intricate things. It was like a meditation and things like voices would happen in my head.

There are certain practices [like this in our culture]. When I started to learn about our history and the things that happened to our people, I realized that so many artifacts and things that were meaningful to us were taken away. Growing up I was not exposed to any of those artifacts so when I went to museums or looked at history books, I was like: ‘Wow, I was wondering why I’m so drawn to this object.’ Because there is an essence, a soul, an energy of the ancient people that I connect with. I became curious: What was this and why is it here—why we don’t have it there? You develop and evolve, being spiritually exposed to certain things. I started to realize certain things about myself. There is something beyond the actual physical object. There is something beyond the feeling and process I do before making these objects.

I started to do more advocating and include more of my heritage and cultural practice within my work. 13 years ago, we had just moved to the Biscuit Mill as Imiso. My father was still alive at the time and retired in the Eastern Cape. He kept asking, ‘What exactly do you do?’ I made a traditional beer pot that we use to drink umqombothi (maize and sorghum beer)—passing it about—and I brought it as a gift. I didn’t tell him that I was going to arrive, it was a surprise and I presented it to him. It had the brew inside in the morning. He was so emotional and excited at the same time: ‘Okay, let’s wait. By the afternoon, everyone should be here because you arrived from the city and brought me this gift.’ We went with our extended families and the neighbors. The elders spoke and said a lot of beautiful, overwhelming words.

I see now what they mean: each and every person has a purpose, a gift, a certain calling which you tend to use to heal those around you, be it with love, the gift of hope, or just by making beautiful music or objects that can be used to deliver messages. It turns out that I’m one of those people. Clay is a medium I can use to bridge the gap between the past, the now, and the future.

When they said that, being a young man at the time, I had no idea what that meant, but I realized that I’m already in the path and it’s just a matter of honoring it. Since then, I’ve grown to understand what my purpose is. They said, ‘It is your calling. Your purpose is to bring back dignity to our people, our heritage, to make us remember who we are and where we were, so we can be proud of ourselves.’ So that we can be true to ourselves anywhere in the world without fearing to express ourselves and practice what we practice. As long as we human beings are one in nature, we advocate for love, connection, collectivity, and collaboration. That’s what this is about.

Andile Dyalvane, Nkcokocha (foreground); Idladla (background) 
Southern Guild | Investec Cape Town Art Fair 2020

When do you think you fully integrated that message from the elders?

When, that’s a tricky one, but I’ll start with the acknowledgement of it. Around 2001, I was invited to be part of an exhibition called Tea Lights Candles. We needed to make everything in porcelain; it had to do with the light illuminating from the porcelain. But I wasn’t working with porcelain. I made a small cup from earthenware clay and made incisions and pushed the clay out and into itself so the light could shine through.

I thought it was such an amazing effect. I put everything else aside and started exploring that. I inlaid red and then laid black oxide or something. Someone walked in and said, ‘Wow, this looks like a fresh wound.’ With that said, I was like, ‘Exactly, there you go.’ This is something I grew up practicing at home, but it came about subconsciously. I started speaking about it because people wanted to know: why is that; what is it; what is scarification? I realized that not everyone knows why certain markings or practices are performed by people. They either tend to be judgmental about it or say some negative things.

But if you know then you better understand people and why they do what they do or have certain markings. These objects are a platform to create conversation and educate, to be able to share and have everyone understand each other.

From there, I started embracing more of my heritage and cultural elements and bringing them to my work. Be it the way I do it, or the surface or object itself is a reference from a certain time, tribe, or of our own, I tell a story about that particular narrative. That is sharing, educating, and expressing. Sometimes I have no idea why I’m saying what I’m saying at that time, but I felt I needed to bring that to the fore and this is whereby I’m saying, the messages or visions and gifts are from my ancestors. When they bring those dreams and visions to me, they want me to realize them in order for the general public—who needs to hear and feel those messages—to experience them. That’s how the integration comes about.

Yes. Beautifully said.

It’s true. I had an exhibition at Friedman Benda in New York, in the Chelsea District in 2016. They had asked me to be part of the stable and gave me a solo show. Wow. At one point, Alexis and I were speaking and I had said, ‘We’ll envision an exhibition in New York.’ We left it at that and continued working as we do. But when the call came I thought, ‘This is amazing. You are going to be an African person in this gallery who was selected amongst every other person that could have been selected.’ For me, that’s a milestone and career recognition, not only for myself. Where I come from, you are not the child only of your parents but of the whole community and the whole village, and now that goes to the whole city, the whole country, and to the whole continent.

When that happens and you need to say something about your exhibition, it has to be in your native language. They really want to hear what and who you are and the only fitting word that expressed that gratitude and acknowledgement of not only what I was presenting, but everyone who had played a role in my career was Camagu, which is a practice and phrase we say when we’re sharing and expressing gratitude, and acknowledging the one in front of you. It is the deepest way of saying: I see you, I’m ready, and I’m here to acknowledge and go forth.

It is one phrase that embodies a lot of the culture. But it is not unique to us; you probably have a phrase, action, or gesture to express gratitude. I know the cultures influence each other and some are dying in a way. Some are vanishing. And you [may] think that your culture, way of doing, or language is not as superior as others because it’s considered uncool or something like that. But with the loss of that kind of vocabulary, you lose yourself as well. I had to bring that up in order for us to be proud of ourselves. As it turns out, I am then living up to what I was told I’m about, and it has been happening since.

Here we are.

Here we are in this amazing space. It is so fitting that your plans for the space include not only residencies but workshops as well in order to share and educate.

That’s correct. I think the way we have been raised as a community and as people just as well is that no man is an island. You don’t do things alone. You do the group and the minute you know something you cannot to keep it to yourself, you have to share it with people. Imiso as the company is derived from the wedding homes, so [the idea is that] homes are meeting tomorrow. We do what we do today for the better tomorrow and in many ways rather than one. That’s what we would like to leave as a legacy. Whatever we do today, it has to spread far and wide, so it can continue. Everything we try to do and would like to achieve, be it the knowledge and gift that we have, is to be experienced by a lot of people.

What are you working on presently?

I am working on some pieces here. There’s a possible exhibition with Friedman Benda. I’m also doing Design Johannesburg. I will make some work [onsite] and give talks as a featured artist.

Other than that, we’re setting up to host a lot of tours, and specialized workshops starting in March. I’ve created a master class, The Clay Adventures. It came about from wanting to share different experiences I’ve had from residencies, growing up in different places, the people I’ve met and how they influence certain collections I do, and so on. Any person who would like to come and be inspired [is welcome]. I share my process from the actual planning to playing music, dancing, and moving. When you leave the room, you leave much more inspired. Wanting to do more for yourself is being able to remind yourself who you are and find your own song or honor your own calling. People kept asking, ‘How do you come up with this collection? What informs that? How do you know, what’s your process?’ I felt the need to avail myself, to share what I can and see if people can take some of the tools and use them for themselves.

How often do you do the masterclass?

The first one was in Johannesburg and then Port Elizabeth, so the Eastern Cape so far. We’re planning on having one here in Cape Town in March. It started about two years ago. I can’t even count—time flies so fast and so many things happened. But it is gaining momentum because it is needed [for] everyone who has experienced it. It’s nothing like me explaining, ‘This is how you make a cup.’ I do show [things], but so much of it is an experiential exercise, from music, taste, smell, sound—because that all informs my working environment and process. The key thing is to have people leave with something that will inspire them to best do what they do.

In your day to day when you’re in the studio, do you have a ritual or routine? 

Yes, at most times and even at home, when I wake up or before I sleep. There I try to develop sound and burn sage to calm myself down and clear the energy so I can be open to bring about whatever message or idea I need to bring in this time. That’s very important for me. There needs to be some sort of music or rhythm. Whatever I do is very rhythmic because there’s always sound in my head that drives my rhythm and pace. That brings about again these subconscious messages from my ancestors in camagu, so that’s one of the rituals I tend to do.

This is a stool I’m working on; I have to glaze and paint it. It’s for a lodge in Botswana that Southern Guild has been busy with. This seating comes from the Idlala (grain silo) collection, which speaks of the grain silo and the Xhosa language. It speaks of the practice of cultivating and farming (part of my childhood) and how that ties into the vocabulary and the language.

There’s not much farming, which means certain celebrations and rituals are not being performed. When certain dishes and certain things (as a lot of things are done depending on the time) are not being performed, no one is saying the words and then the language itself is dying. With Idlala, I pay homage to that in the revival and restoration of the language to the rightful meaning and vocabulary. I called them the silos of the heritage and the end of my [culture’s] vocabulary and language itself.

I sketch a lot and I can’t do without. I like drawing without a job or in a style, but drawing anything that interests me—from the plants I collect or objects, rocks and things. I draw it realistically and from there I see what form or design would be involved.

All of these things are different seeds, objects, and pots. I am working on a collection called Itongo, which is an ancestral dreamscape. It’s about the dreams and messages I get, be it when I’m sleeping or talking, or I have a quick vision. I can see this object vividly and then I need to make it. If I can’t, I have to draw it so it’s out of my system. Those are gifts and messages I have to create so that people can experience them and then they should evoke people’s emotion and take them wherever they need to go. That’s my duty; that’s my purpose. This collection pays homage to that. It is inspired by traditional headrests, which were made of wood. With the headrest, you were lying down close to the ground and the grass mat. The belief from my ancestors was that then you are closely connected to the ground where the ancestors lay and the messages. So, the headrests are important to the dreamscape and this collection pays homage to that.

This collection comes with a language of its own, which is coupled by symbols that are derived from different objects, elements, places and phases—things that speak to me and that I perhaps have experience with as well. I called those symbols messages, but in my language they’re called umyalezo but they are for different things. I collect a lot of brushes so I created a different symbol for the brushes. That speaks of me: there’s an attitude that speaks about why the brushes and why the different kinds of brushes.

And I speak of a boy. How is it to be a boy? There’s a symbol for that and there is something in what that does, what it is, and so on. So this collection I am working on is based on the symbol and on the stools. You can look at them and see them.

Each symbol has a meaning and a story. I’m referring to them as different objects that I’m working on and they become a whole visual language. There is a whole reality just about this one and so on. If I am to communicate, I can put one or two of these and you will know exactly what I’m talking about.

It’s kind of a key. Yes. Will you be integrating this into the rest of your work or just for this?

For me, they’re intertwined because every time I come up with a collection, there is a symbol for that collection. I started doing calligraphy-like things. The best way to simplify some of the realistic images I do is using a brush, just a few strokes and that’s it. From that came this whole writing [system] I’m doing with the brush and ink, from the original references to the actual invention of the objects I want to realize. It’s kind of translated; one collection is going to lead to the next and the next. It just doesn’t stop. There are many more symbols I’m working on that will come and become something.

One of my students at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine is married to a Native American chief. They invited me [to visit] because at the school I performed the whole sage dancing and moving and ‘tuned’ them to my whole process—not just how to make pots. This chief performed a naming ceremony with fire, tobacco, pipe, dancing, drumming, and everything that speaks to me. He gave me a name, Dancing Moon. I translated that into my language and created a symbol for it. So you may find that symbol soon in the future on some of my work. Dancing Moon, that is my name.

All photography by Bernd Ott 

Andile Dyalvane | Imiso Ceramics
@andiledyalvane | @imisoceramics

Be sure to follow Andile and Imiso on Instagram, as he is conducting workshops and sharing his process there while South Africa and most of the world is on lockdown.