She was distraught on the telephone. “We have big problems since my mother died. People like to write about my mum, they’re always asking us questions but we still suffer. We’re poor, we are big artists, but we don’t benefit from it,” said Jabu Nala, the late Nesta Nala’s daughter.

Nesta Nala was a world-renowned ceramicist from the small, rural village Oyaya in Zululand. Born in 1940, she came from a family of potters. The line can be traced as far back as the early 1900s, when Ntombi Khumalo taught her daughter, Siphiwe, the art of ceramics. Siphiwe taught her daughter, Nesta, and she in turn taught her daughters Bongi (64), Jabu (45) and Thembi (41) the art.

It is through this family line that the tradition and artistry of Zulu ceramics has been preserved and continues to be passed down. The Nala name is world-renowned and their Zulu pots are highly sought after, despite this, survival is a daily struggle for these ceramicists. Jabu said that they continue to live “from hand to mouth while the people who buy our work sell it for lots of money.”

The art elite that profits from the exploitation of artists has been written about extensively, as well as justification for the ‘starving artist’ stereotype; be they black, white, male or female. There is a universality in the struggle of artists, and it is this socio-economic instability that allows them to occupy elite social territory while living up to the notion of autonomy. However the disparities between end sale and artist income cannot be ignored.

Bottom of the range pots bought directly from the Nala family can cost up to $10, while they’re sold for $120-$750 on the international market, with the family seeing very little income beyond their initial sale. Despite their prominent family name, Nesta Nala’s daughters live off a mere R2 000 ($200) per month, and Nesta herself did not manage to earn much more while she was alive.

“[My mother] was from a rural area, she didn’t know how to go to Joburg to look for galleries, or who to consult in order to help her sell her work. She was not a business person, she was an artist,” said Thembi Nala.

The process of Nesta’s art was arduous. She would dig brown and red clay from her surroundings, then coil, burnish and fire the clay in an open hollow. She embellished the pots with fine, geometric incisions and bumps called ‘amasumpa’, most notably to provide a grip for the carrier. After firing the unglazed vessels, Nesta would then smooth and polish the unique pots with animal fat. This is the process her daughters still use today, having learnt the skill from a very young age.

“When I was small I used to play with clay. I would make small toys while my mother was making pots. After that she taught me how to make them,” said Thembi. These Zulu ceramics continue to play an important role in traditional Zulu ceremonies: the large beer pots, for instance, are used by newly wed brides to present beer to their in-laws, while others are used for carrying water.

Very Little Support

Despite the Nala family approaching various government departments for assistance, they have received very little local government support. “Japan makes ceramists ‘national living treasures,’ while in South Africa they have a difficult time making a consistent living. This has a great deal to do with the domestic value of their work,” said Elizabeth Perill, an American scholar, who has been studying Zulu ceramics for the past decade and is assisting Nesta Nala’s daughters by connecting them with the thriving American Indian ceramic art market.

Perill has been in constant touch with the Nala family, in order to keep the memory and achievements of Nesta Nala alive. Her work is represented in major national and international collections and she represented South Africa at the Cairo International Biennale for ceramics. In 1995 she also won the Vita Craft award and 1997 saw her participate in the National Ceramics Biennial.

Today the Nala name lives on through her daughters Bongi, Jabu and Thembi who are teaching their daughters the art of ceramics “I want [my daughter] to learn how to make pots because its good to learn how to do something with your hands,” said Thembi. Jabu is more sceptical “I love my work very much it doesn’t feed me but I’m going to continue to do my work. I’ll push, push, and push. Maybe after 20 years I’ll see a different life,” she said.

It remains up to the Nala family to continue the tradition, a tough decision for anyone who chooses to be an artist.