Relationalities, 2021

 I am continuously drawn to working with porcelain as a medium. Having explored this beautiful material over forty years I find that through its surfaces I explore responses to the human predicament in relation to nature and to the earth.

Although I love to paint, it is porcelain’s fragile and translucent strength, its high resonance and dissemination of light which I most love. The quality of movement in the liquidity of casting slip, or the fine feel of throwing clay makes the hours at work feel like play.

The exploration and expression of both myself and the human context has become a vocational meditation. As my technical abilities have increased over time, age has brought broadened perspectives.

In my latest body of work for Ateliers Courbet, I have honed in on one thread of ancestral history and the clay artefacts which I grew up with. These objects used as symbols, invoke two streams of my lineage. I am a product of colonial expansion into Africa and this is my history to work with.

Particular meditations and insights have sprung and refined over time, very often in conversation with fellow South African ceramicist, Andile Dyalvane. His work is currently on show at Friedman Benda in New York.

In 1788 my first Dutch forbear’s seafaring journey was inadvertently intercepted . Because of a war between England and Holland (caused by the American war of independence), an English ship sailed in to Saldanha Bay at the Cape – too close to the treasure bearing Middelburg. My forebear, the second mate, Abraham de Smidt chose to sink the boat and its precious cargo – rather than give the English the advantage. He rowed to shore and as a result – was forced to take up residence in Cape Town. de Smidt stayed and this was the family of my maternal grandmother. His grandson was the co-founder of the first Association of Arts in Cape Town in 1871. This was 77 years before policies of institutionalised racism afflicted the country.

When I was seven years old my family acquired some of the salvaged pieces from the Middelburg. They bore the marks of the fire and had stayed under the sea in Saldanha bay for two hundred years – yet as a child I was bored with the stories. It was only In discussion with Andile in 2008 that I begun to realise that the imprint on me was deeper than the style of ‘histories’ I had been subjected to. Perhaps there was another way to view the ancestral imprint. The way I had learned the stories within my English colonial culture was about pedigree, commodification and the value of the ‘exotic’.

Other sorts of human connections began to become more immediately consciousness.

Forty years after the Dutch arrival – one of the English streams of my family landed on the beach in Port Elizabeth – (Algoa Bay). This was my maternal grandfather’s family. My family still has part of the gold and orange Coalport china dinner service they arrived with. These artefacts also bear the cracks and damages of time. Their landfall was a few hours from Andile Dyalvane’s ancestral homestead.

Looked at in relation to his history and his ‘re-membering’ of land and the natural connections of sense making (beneath the dislocations his people were subjected to by the English) is a painful exercise. The Xhosa and English fought the notorious Eastern Cape Wars of Dispossession 1779- 1878 which stretched over 8 battles during those hundred years. Land and stock theft were the order of the day. In many cases the English behaved with shameful violence and showed a disregard for life and culture in the territories they invaded.

It is the relationships to animals, to the seasonal rhythms of nature and to his ancestral lands which emerge in Andile’s latest body of work ‘Ithongo”. His signs and symbols originate from a literacy of the human spirit in relationship to the earth and animals and to the stream of ancestry invoked as living entities. Those passed away to live in ever present but unseeable realms.

What is evoked for me is a deep sadness for all the loss and the folly and shame of the coloniser’s arrogance and invasion. The cynical dismantling of the Eastern Cape’s existent political and cultural structures was a systematic feat of disassociation. Damaged people cause damage to others. This story stands as an index of many such stories from an era coming out of what ironically was called the ‘enlightenment or age of reason’.

Today the earth sits with the debris and detritus of dislocated belongings and dislocated connection. The results of broken relationalities have polluted everything to the point of ecological collapse. The net effects of such contracted understandings of our place in the natural order has ravaged and continue to ravage the planet. This is where the ‘battle lines” are now critically drawn. It is nature which has ultimately been plundered.

Today the ceramic artefacts in my possession have only their material encodings as value. I consider the craftspeople who made them, the social conditions which they endured. I think of proliferation and human strivings and the expressions of every day domesticity. (I think too of the amount of synthetic non biodegradable packaging available in South Africa which I use to export my work to New York.)

After I left university where I studied art from a modernist perspective (where formalism was valorised over content), I rebelled at the hiatus in styles of acceptable expression of meaning. I took to my potter’s wheel and my very earliest works after university from the eighties had the child like glee of illustrative English story books for children.

In those days deeper meanings and my passionate social criticisms were clothed in wry humour and fairy tale characters. This was the habit life of communication from my English culture. Humour when things were bad, and oblique and encoded ways of saying more difficult things.

In my childhood stories, animals had human names, were dressed as humans and thought like humans. This is what we learned of nature. We were not taught to ask questions – only to name things as we saw them.

I had to develop over a great length of time to find more accurate forms of expression. Over the many years this expression has become simpler, and has deepened beyond illustration and often now beyond speech. In my work I attempt to drop beneath the surface to find the connecting bones of the matter.

Ongoing conversations with Andile amongst other things, has increased a sensitivity to what my culture has overlooked. It is only in relationship that we can see clearly. I am grateful for this ongoing walk of friendship and the resultant search for clarity and for establishing new ways to be with things as they are. As Andile says “we are here”.

Colonial expansion is a difficult history. Much dislocation has begun to surface and is being voiced with outrage all around the world today. Much understanding and relational sensitivity has been broken and destroyed.

To strive to restore connection with one another and with the earth seems critical now. It requires openness and a different sort of listening.

The clay artefacts which have come from my histories have invoked pondering responses. The works which I make speak to exorcisms of sadness and remorse, but are also joyful contemporary invocations of light and relatedness.

Human fallibility is a constant and porcelain is a great teacher. It carries the history of the hand which forms it, and which it reveals at the time of firing. This process transcends linear and didactic ways of knowing things. I have learned to be open and to be receptive and intrigued by what arises when I open the kiln door. (In my 20’s I used to cry with frustration and disappointment quite often.)

I work with broken things, and with compassion for the distortions of things rendered in heat. When I work with my clay – I think of what has been termed the ‘mineral stew’ of particles – formed and broken down by wind and water. Sedimented, mined, recomposed and formed by human hand and re-fired to find new forms which in turn are articulated by light. Most of all I think of the Foraminifera – unicellular beings whose intricate structures laid down in their billions have made the material which I love to work with.

Everyday artefacts made in clay become touchstones and an index to many things.

In my crafter’s hand, porcelain – an exacting task master has grown to be a fluid dancer in a partnership. Devoted practise has become a meditative practice and searching out the intelligence of materials, the heart and the hand is how I love to spend my days.This high ringing material is a fragile holder of light. It is a record of movement, of intentions, of grasping and of letting go. It is its own mystical and beautiful arrival.

All photographs by Alistair Blair