Last week I was invited to the private studio of celebrated Cape Town fine and ceramic artist Ella-lou O’Meara to witness THE ancient process of transfer print on ceramics, or as she also refers to it, a form of intaglio printing (more of this in the next post). During the time we spent together I realized what a special honour it was to be taken through this process – it was not merely the witnessing of one of the world’s ancient art forms, but the evolution of artistic development and meaning over one person’s lifetime.
Ceramics represent one of the most common categories of artefacts found at archaeological sites in the Western Cape. Ceramics did not begin with the first Europeans who landed and traded at the Cape. Before them came the North African inspired pottery making of the indigenous Khoi, the stock herding groups that came down through Southern Africa around 2000 ago. Along with glassware, faunal remains and other materials that represent the debris of everyday human life, the seriation of ceramic assemblages form a key method of relative dating techniques at Cape archaeological sites. As Cape ceramic expert Jane Klose wrote: “The patterns on printed refined earthenwares have a chronology”. (Klose wrote a comprehensive guide to identifying and interpreting ceramics excavated from colonial sites and shipwrecks in the south-western Cape).
VOC-inspired, hand-painted tea-cups and saucers by Ella-Lou O’Meara for La Motte
This all sounds rather scientific, but really what we are talking about here are some of the most personal items of human interaction – the plates, cups and saucers, jugs, bowls and dishes that have held the meals and drinks we have shared together in the past and the present. The shape and form, the patterning and decoration of these objects are the wallpaper to our lived experiences.
For Ella-Lou the inception of a love for prints was perhaps first stirred in her childhood home in Paarl from her mother’s teacups, her sponged cobalt vetpot and her grandmother’s Willow pattern porcelain set. This was the wallpaper to her typically Western Cape upbringing of mixed German, Scottish, Afrikaans (and a touch of French) roots. Ella-Lou has always found tea sets interesting – she did a series of artwork of scenes of her friends and their teapots and explained how what stands behind them are the interior stage sets of our lives.
Examples of Willow pattern sherds found on Solms-Delta, surface collection. 2005.
First appearing in the 1790s, the Willow pattern is one of the most commonly occurring patterns at Cape archaeological sites. We found sherds of it all over Solms-Delta wine estate, scattered in-between the rows of vines, and lying on mounds of freshly turned up dirt by moles. Its ubiquitous presence in our archaeological sites and present day display cabinets ensures that many South Africans have grown up with this pattern on their personal stage sets. And like many others I too have a Willow pattern story; two small bowls that were given to me as a wedding gift were used to wean both of my babies onto porridge at six months old. It seems porridge and childhood is one of the most universal themes, as even 16th and 17th century painters used iconography of the Madonna feeding baby Jesus from a bowl of porridge. After all what could be a more humanizing face to the Son of God than being fed the most basic of nourishing meals?
Ella-Lou has always been inspired by prints. Having studied Fine Art at UCT Michaelis School under Katrina Harries, she learnt the arts of prints and print making. As we chatted over mugs of coffee served with cream alongside a tin full of rusks and Marie biscuits and the unmistakable whisper of sea air on the balcony of her home overlooking Robben Island, Ella-Lou commented that every medium is a different language. Engraving for example tells a story, etching on the other hand is like a lyric on a flute. Each are a language…as is the past. Ella-Lou’s ceramics symbolize how different languages can speak to each other on the same piece.
The final piece is not a re-creation of the past, but something new that leaps as a springboard from it and uses its metaphors and signifiers to evoke contradictions and new juxtapositions.
The famous Willow pattern is especially case in point. Arguably the most iconic of the Chinoiserie style prints, its inspiration has been transmuted many times over. Chinoiserie is a recurring theme in European artistic styles since the seventeenth century, which reflect Chinese artistic influences.
Characterized by the use of fanciful imagery of an imaginary China THE WILLOW PATTERN represents the prettiest of clichés and acts as high priestess of pastiche. And we continue to adore her for it.
In China and Japan there is a rather long tradition of hand painted ceramics, and more generally of landscape scenes in painting. After all the Chinese invented porcelain in around AD 600. Europeans had never seen such a translucent white ceramic when it finally arrived in Italy in the 13th century. With the discovery of sea routes to the East by the Portuguese and Spanish in the late 16th century, Chinese porcelain was exported to Europe. It included porcelain that was either entirely Chinese in form and decoration or porcelains in which the form and/or decoration was copied from European sources (see Klose). I am kind of in love with all the artistic reverberations that this ceramic pebble has made when dropped in the ocean. So the Chinese make porcelain to export to Europe that often used European motifs in its decoration or form (an imagined Europe) within a Chinese aesthetic. Europeans in turn take the Chinese aesthetic and use it to create their own Chinese motifs (an imagined China). This takes pastiche to another level. The ripples seem to be the same but the reverberations make sure they are different from that which started it.
Early hints of Chinoiserie appeared in the 17th century in nations with active East India companies that came into contact with the material culture of the East: England (the British East India Company) and the Netherlands (the Dutch East India Company) among them. Tin-glazed pottery made at Delft and other Dutch towns adopted blue-and-white Ming decoration from the early 17th century. In a fascinating twist the Willow pattern is itself a composite design, it is made up from elements of Chinese porcelain designs but for which there is no Chinese original.
That is perhaps no different to what Ella-Lou O’Meara’s ceramic art does. It is not that we are suddenly in the present drawing on artistic influences to create something new and to use the languages of those aesthetic traditions to comment and talk to one another – we have a very long history of doing that, most certainly in ceramics. Ella-Lou thrives on such fusions and mixed metaphors. For her the repeating of artistic elements and re-interpreting of these old languages stands on a continuum of meaning. She created a range of platters for the Cape Grace Hotel in which the imagery celebrated all the different influences that came through the Cape. They are all in conversation with each other on one platter.
Examples of Ella-Lou’s ceramic work showing compositions of VOC-inspired iconography set in a new language of juxtapositions (On left: showing the mythological figure of Europa on a Nguni bull with a landscape inspired by late 18th century French traveller Francois Le Vaillant. On right: Europa as seen by the Dutch, with a “Chinese” Table Mountain inspired from a bowl in the Castle of Good Hope William Fehr Collection).
Ella-lou uses her ceramic work as both social and personal commentary. And because of the accepted aesthetics she works within that commentary is celebrated quietly but evocatively. This is not in your face public graffiti which spells out its message clearly, it allows for nuances and subject matter that is also personal to the meaning maker.
One of her current projects involves the portrait of Anna de Koning as centrepiece, certainly a figure that stands herself at the heart of mixed colonial metaphors. Anna was the daughter of the slave woman Angela van Bengale, having been born in bondage in Batavia sometime around 1661 and the result of a relationship with a soldier from Ghent. In 1678 she married Olof Bergh and became the mistress of the Cape’s most famous and oldest wine estate, Groot Constantia.
Anna represents what was considered the lowest rung of society at the Cape (born into slavery), and at the same time the highest echelon (married into the wealthy elite). She is of mixed racial ancestry and here she represents the truth of Cape genealogy (we too are like a diverse range of ceramic metaphors mixed together).
Ella-Lou isn’t just reproducing an extant portrait of Anna, she has recreated it and added her own detail. In her dress she has added the pattern of a chintz dress that is held in a collection at Iziko Social History Museums. The plate will also include other historic imagery and written text from Anna de Koning’s auction sale of goods from her deceased estate.