Echoes of Ancestral Wisdom

South Africa’s leading ceramic artist uses the profound language of clay to weave threads of tradition into contemporary art

By Nkgopoleng Moloi

“Language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world.” – Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Andile Dyalvane’s practice is a profound exploration of the isiXhosa tradition, deeply rooted in symbols and gestures that speak to his cultural heritage. Through the language of clay, his work is a meticulous blend of the traditional and the contemporary. He kneads and crafts clay through a deliberate process that reflects his respect for the material and its significance. His practice is about imprinting his culture using sketches as a foundation for his three-dimensional creations. His vessels are not just objects; they are containers of ideologies, embodying the essence of where he comes from.

Over time, he has evolved, taking on different forms that engage in a conversation with the land, customs, and the production and sharing of knowledge. Water, plants, animals and earth are not just elements in his work; they are integral parts of the narrative he weaves, reflecting the core tenets of the isiXhosa tradition that emphasise the connection to the land, spirituality, and community. Clay becomes a medium of profound storytelling imbued with a deep sense of purpose and meaning.

A new monograph, ‘Ancestral Wisdom: Ubunzululwazi Lwabaphantsi’, catalogues the artist’s practice, offering a deep dive into his transformative journey and his profound connection to his heritage. Featuring two essays by art historian Olivia Barrell and Andile’s wife Alexis Dyalvane, who is an interdisciplinary artist, along with a long-form interview with Andile, the book presents a cohesive narrative of his artistic evolution and thematic explorations.

The 184-page monograph, made in collaboration with the Almas Foundation, is accompanied by a documentary tracing the trajectory of Andile’s practice. Barrell traces Andile’s work with a thorough and insightful analysis. Through this text, she provides a sense of nostalgia and a deep connection to memory, particularly in preserving traditional rural ways of life. Andile’s heritage is reflected upon through his use of motifs and forms that celebrate and honour isiXhosa practices and identity.

Nature plays a central role, symbolising a connection to the environment and a reverence for its beauty. Spirituality and ancestral knowledge are also key themes, reflecting a belief in the interconnectedness of the living and the ancestors. Barrell traces how the artist continues to innovate and experiment, incorporating materials like forged copper into his clay works. “I have always been interested in forging, that is why it is one of the first materials I have integrated into my clay works,” adds Andile. “Copper is a soft, living metal and as it ages, or is exposed to different elements, it starts to change its colour and movement, it evolves.”

Alexis Dyalvane’s lyrical and intimate text, titled; A Re-Turn Journey with Andile Dyalvane is a tapestry that illuminates Andile’s connection to the land. Through vivid descriptions of Ngobozana Village in the Eastern Cape, the artist’s ancestral home, she paints a picture of his upbringing as an integral part of his artistic development and his coming into being. His childhood stories are weaved through symbols and glyphs that are now evident in his art.

This wonderful contextualisation of Andile’s practice reminded me of how his work is in conversation with theorists such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Wangari Maathai and Malidoma Patrice who take seriously ancestral wisdom and knowledge, emphasising traditional ecological knowledge and the connectedness of people, land and the environment. For them, and Andile too, art is not for its own sake but serves a deeper function for connection and co-creation. He reflects; “I grew up in a community that makes objects that will be used every day. I’ve observed my father, who was very skilful. I’ve observed his elder brother. I’ve observed Bawo uDlamini next door, and I’ve observed my mother and many other women in the village who either would be weaving or whatnot. That would have inspired me.” Paging through the catalogue I recalled an anecdote the artist once told of a clay vessel he crafted for his father, a gift inspired by traditional artefacts that once filled their village. This vessel, with its reddish-brown tones and scarification motifs, is a homage to the past, a reminder of the stories, songs, and old ways that are slowly fading. Moved by his son’s gesture, Andile’s father shared the gift with the entire village, sparking a celebration of memories both joyful and painful.

Tracing his numerous bodies of work, including iThongo, Idladla or his collection of work from his Leach Pottery Residency, one finds a practice rich in ritual, community, and the embrace of the healing power of art. For him keeping the vocabulary of tradition alive takes the form of moulding and sometimes marking through scarification of his objects, working the earth through a practice, contemplated by Barrel as “… the remembrance of the earth with him; the ever-present memories of moulding clay between his fingers, of sourcing it within the muddy riverbed and of its embrace on his skin,” who continues further; “For here is an artist who moves with the flux of life, and his practice moves with him.”

In her text Barrell notes; “Towards the end of 2019, Dyalvane started working on a series called iThongo; this is the vision state, the ancestor dreamscape, a place outside of the body. This body of work began in the form of visions, which continued for several months, of gatherings and places, objects, and people. To discover more, Dyalvane went on a journey to the arid province of the Northern Cape to pay homage to a legendary healer and sculptor, Credo Mutwa…” This evocation of Mutwa reminded me of his profound insights into ancestral knowledge which seem to serve as theoretical underpinnings for Andile’s work. Beginning with the title, Ancestral Wisdom: Ubunzululwazi Lwabaphantsi his practice echoes Mutwa’s belief in the enduring presence and wisdom of ancestors. Mutwa’s assertion that “our ancestors are not dead; they live through us in our dreams, thoughts, and actions” courses through the vessels crafted and passed down by the artist. Mutwa’s emphasis on the power of prayer and the intercession of ancestors in bringing about positive change parallels Dyalvane’s view of his art as a form of spiritual practice and a means of healing and restoration, noting; “we must never forget where we come from and who we are.”

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