The Imiso Ceramics workshop is fertile ground for creative incubation. “This is where it all happens,” says Zizipho. It’s a rainy Monday afternoon, the space reverberates with the sound of showers on the corrugated metal roof, and we’ve turned down the large JBL speaker for the sake of the interview transcription. Upstairs on the landing, Ludwe Mgolombane produces the occasional banging noise: He’s the latest participant in Zizipho and Andile’s mentorship programme, which now, with increasing demand, is becoming more structured. Zizipho and Andile’s ground floor workspaces are divided by a large rectangular drying room housing art-in-progress and a diligent dehumidifier. In front of the drying room, a sizeable round straw carpet serves the studio’s latest creations, including Ludwe’s prize-winning pieces from Ceramics Southern Africa's Corobrik National Ceramics Biennale 2022. “We’ll sit around that circle and brainstorm,” Zizipho reports. “The team is part of the process from the beginning.” The room is cleansed with sage, and tuned to the beat of African jazz artists like Mama Madosini, Xhanti Nokwali and Boubacar Traorè.
The uBuhle boKhokho (Beauty of Our Ancestors) show, celebrating Black hairstyles from Africa and the diaspora, presented an opportunity for immersive research beyond conventional reading and mood boarding. “I wanted to experience it through me,” says Zizipho, prefacing the idea to make and photograph herself in the hairstyles that would ultimately translate into her sculptures. Tapping into her Xhosa heritage was an intuitive starting point, but constructing a wider range of styles from across the continent required additional talent. And so, Zizipho collaborated with the Zimbabwean Samantha Mushamba, who runs Imiso’s commercial space in Woodstock, to craft the twelve hairstyles featured in the show. “At home [Mthatha, Eastern Cape] I was the one who would make people’s hair,” says Zizipho, “but there are certain styles I couldn’t do, and she excels in those. So I was like, let’s play.”
Walking into Zizipho Poswa’s shared ceramics studio with Andile Dyalvane and a rotation of junior artists in Cape Town’s Salt River, you immediately know which side of the room is hers. Atop a work surface, leaning against the red brick wall, is a colourful survey of female hairstyles from across the African continent—the easiest giveaway. On a neighbouring shelf, miniature versions of the immense ceramics in uBuhle boKhokho, Zizipho’s second solo show at Southern Guild, confirm her ownership of the space and provide coy clues to the artist’s process.
Zizipho is warm and refreshingly forthcoming. Minutes after meeting with a friendly embrace, she dives into the crux of her inspiration. “So it starts with messages,” she explains. “Visions from the ancestors, I believe. Because that’s where we come from.” The messages are mostly visual, delivered through people or imagery with increasing frequency. “It becomes consistent, and that’s when I know.”
“You have to listen. You have to open up your space. If you don’t pay attention, then you’re missing out on important messages that you should be bringing to life, and that’s what I’m blessed to be able to do.”
 Ready for its initial bisque firing, Amaflerho, Xhosa, 2022, fits snugly into the Imiso kiln.
Zizipho at work in the Imiso studio. “You meet the challenges and find solutions in the process of making,” she says. “It’s a beautiful process. You never stop learning.”
Zizipho’s work, through an astute calibration of abstraction and figuration, presents its narrative in a way that’s instantly recognisable to a South African audience, while retaining a sensibility that feels globally accessible. Fresh off the opening of Southern Guild’s uBuhle boKhokho show in Cape Town and their showcase at Design Miami, Zizipho notes a profound gratitude in the work’s reception. “It’s bringing pride to who we are, and acknowledging our identity. Everybody just says thank you, and I’m so honoured and humbled to be able to do the work.” A secondary, somewhat misplaced reaction tends to be along the lines of “How will you top this?” For Zizipho, the priority is to stay true to herself, as opposed to conquering externally imposed ambition-based narratives. “You have to listen. You have to open up your space. If you don’t pay attention, then you’re missing out on important messages you should be bringing to life, and that’s what I’m blessed to be able to do,” she smiles. “There’s more coming.” —
Through immersive research and generous collaboration, Zizipho Poswa preserves the hairstyles of her African ancestors in outsized, abstracted ceramics for a new generation.
ART / BULLETIN / 31.01.23
Read time / 7 mins
Sketches are an initial stage of Zizipho’s process. Here, a Cameroon-inspired piece takes shape.
The completed Amaflerho, Xhosa, 2022. Glazed earthenware. 108 x 66 x 66 cm. Unique. Enquire at Southern Guild.
The predominantly black colour scheme for Zizipho’s uBuhle boKhokho show is a direct representation of Black hair: “Its power, its strength, lies in the colour,” says Zizipho.
The uBuhle boKhokho hairpieces have traditional roots, styled with a contemporary, practical eye. “We had to play around with the forms,” Zizipho explains. “There are styles that I love so much that I couldn’t translate into ceramics.” That disappointment is outweighed by the validation of discovering, through subsequent research, that Zizipho and Samantha’s construction techniques matched those of the historic women they were emulating. Although the work does sample styles from various corners of the continent, the intent is not to focus on segmentation. “Each region had their own hairstyles, but you can tell that Africa was once one before it was divided, because you can see similar hairstyles from different regions,” Zizipho explains. “I would find a style that is dominant in West Africa, but named after a Zimbabwean hair artist. Hence when I was naming them, I wasn’t really focusing on the region. This is most importantly to honour the hairstylists and to honour our ancestors. This heritage is so important to me to preserve for the next generation.”
At the Imiso studio, Zizipho works with two assistants, one of which, her brother, has been by her side for fifteen years. Once the miniature sculptures are completed (“just to get an idea of the form”) the journey of coiling the show’s substantial, often almost two-meter-tall pieces begins. “Actually, the beginning of this whole production was a nightmare,” Zizipho confides. Load shedding aside, the team trialed an alternative clay which they concluded, after the fourth work emerged shattered from the kiln, was not suited for the scale they were working on. Behind the drying room, an unfired piece waits in limbo. Nearby on the floor, a piece resembling the top half of Ga, Ghana, helmet-like with a substantial panel missing, is evidence of the erroneous trial. Zizipho wanted to incorporate the new clay’s brighter terracotta hue into her work, but reverting to her trusted original materials and sticking to monotone black (with occasional golden accents) proved best. “I needed to be specific and celebrate African hair, which is black: Its power, its strength, lies in the colour. So I had to go with that.” Anyone familiar with her body of work knows Zizipho’s tastes usually skew toward a more vibrant spectrum. Was she tempted? Zizipho lowers her tone, locking eyes with a playful smile: “You have no idea.”