Ceramics at the Cape – artistic reverberations and the languages of the Willow pattern

20151016_130151Part one of a morning spent with celebrated Fine & ceramic artist Ella-lou O’Meara
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.
Khoi pot

Close-up of Khoi women with pot. National Library of South Africa. Unknown artist. Early 18th century.

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 

TX9A41571-200x30078_originalThis 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.

DSCN0185  DSCN0188

Examples of Willow pattern sherds found on Solms-Delta, surface collection. 2005.


Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935); The Epicure, 1908; illustration for Carolyn Well’s poem, “The Seven Ages of Childhood” published in The Ladies’ Home Journal (November 1908)

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.
Willow Pattern close up

Close up on the center landscape and border of a Willow pattern plate.

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.

Chinese blue and white export porcelain, with European scene and French inscription “The Empire of virtue is established to the end of the Universe”, Kangxi period, 1690–1700. Musee Guimet.

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.

 encre de chine 035

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.


Portrait of Anna de Koning. Groot Constantia Collection.

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.

Ella-Lou’s fine artistry goes beyond an inspiration of prints, but draws in the historic heart and soul of the Cape – its landscapes, indigenous fauna and flora, its mixed and convoluted ancestry. And all within the DELICATELY perfect language of porcelain.

Of historical Twitter revelations, an indigenous inheritance of loss, braai heritage and ‘knowing’ each other

Most recently I had perhaps the most basic of a historical/present time revelations. It called into question my knowledge and perceptions of the past; how I think the things I know are known by others, and how deeply our indigenous past and knowledge is disconnected from the present. And similarly, how I can never know what others ‘know’. And all because of twitter. That deep and meaningful platform of social engagement. Or it was in this instance.

Having been a student and researcher of Southern African history for the last 16 years, I now realize that I have taken for granted the knowledge I gained during this process. Subconsciously I think other people in South Africa know what I have learnt and that is a grave presumption. I presume all white South Africans are aware of the atrocities of this countries past. And they aren’t. Whether by not wanting to know, or ignoring it, or wanting to leave it behind, or never really having been told or never having inquired themselves. For that matter, I presume that most so called ‘Coloured’ or ‘Black’ or any other racially designated people know what happened to their ancestors, their grandparents, their parents during colonial times and apartheid. But maybe they don’t. Whether from their parents or grandparents not wanting to talk about it, or wanting to leave it behind, or never really having inquired themselves. But for these apartheid categorizations it is more likely that anyone other than white will know about these atrocities because their families have suffered at the hands of it, and it still affects their lived experiences in the present.

Centuries of dispossession, colonization, genocide, segregation and poverty can and do most certainly affect the present. In a chapter that was published in 2014 that equated Rob Nixon’s (2011) concept of ‘slow violence’ to possible long-term consequences of land dispossession in the Dwars River Valley, near Stellenbosch, I wrote:

“Nixon argues that violence can be incremental, ‘its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales’ and while he focuses on environmental contexts, this rings just as true for social legacies of the Dwars River Valley, if not South Africa as a whole (Nixon 2011: 2). Additionally, Nixon argues that ‘it is those people lacking resources who are the principal casualties of slow violence. Their unseen poverty is compounded by the invisibility of the slow violence that permeates so many of their lives’ (Nixon 2011: 4). Furthermore, violence should be seen as a contest over space, bodies, labour, resources, as well as time (Nixon 2011: 8). The Dwars River Valley witnessed violence on each of these levels, in a microcosm of colonial exploration, settlement and an incremental entrenchment of dispossession and subjugation. In this light, the space, bodies, labour and resources of the indigenous inhabitants, slaves and farm workers of this valley, were violently dispossessed over a period of 350 years.

It speaks to the effectiveness of this long-term process of violence that, three-and-a-half centuries later, there are almost no groups in the Dwars River Valley who claim or construct an identity as tied to that of the indigenous people who once lived there thousands of years before.”

I think these processes of slow violence penetrate not just the corners, but the length and breadth of our South African past and present. The losses are inherited by the most marginalised, the most impoverished.

But back to my twitter revelation. It started in the lead-up to Heritage Day, which lately has seen our nation’s multifaceted, dynamic and diverse cultures diluted down to braai (or Barbecue to you folk outside South Africa) day. A ‘Twitterer’ (is that a thing?) commented in the same frame by saying

“There is more to my heritage than coals and meat ne. Eish. Braai day for who? #heritageday

Braai Day mantra

And actually I agree completely. Except at the same time I don’t. I agree with the sentiment that all of our heritage has been ‘dumbed down’ and essentialized to having meat cooking on open coals. And antithetically I can also understand the pull of that construct – cooking meat on coals is a safe thing to celebrate in a nation where the cultures, languages and traditions are so diverse. What has been lost between the safeness of this celebration and the feeling of disconnect to this cooking practice is that at the very heart of it stands the culture of the ‘first people’ of this country – the indigenous Khoi and San (or collectively and generically the Khoisan, a term for obvious reasons I prefer not to use). The cultural practices and rights of these first people is so marginalized by years of slow violence that we don’t even connect this most basic of Heritage Day celebrations, the image of the National Braai Day, as having been inherited from them.

Coetzee - A Feast from NatureIn her latest book, A Feast from Nature (Penstock Publications, 2015),  Renata Coetzee reflects on what could be the ‘Food culture of the first humans on planet earth’ as is the subtitle. No small topic then. Coetzee explores this question based on her own research and that of scientific scholars in the field. Her argument is situated within the wider discourse and understanding of our human development and evolution in Africa as the cradle of humankind. It is proud making subject matter, and in the forward, Prof Mark Solms (part owner of Solms-Delta Wine Estate along with the workers on the farm) says :

We Need to Be “more aware of how important it is for us – as humans – to preserve and celebrate what remains of the priceless Khoi-Khoin culinary heritage. By doing so…we are honouring the precious legacy of our earliest known ancestors. This legacy unites us all; it is quite simply what makes us human”.

Khoikhoi with cattle. National Library of South Africa. Unknown artist. Early 18th century.

Khoikhoi with cattle. National Library of South Africa. Unknown artist. Early 18th century.

As Renata explains, our shared human development (physically and intellectually) has been dependent on the food that was eaten. From fossil evidence of scientific bone and teeth analysis she tracks what those foods were through time. From fruits, berries, nuts and insects the development of humans is mapped through to how the eating of shellfish affected brain development and cognitive ability. The food culture of the Khoi and San is given justifiable focus in the book, as does their material culture and social life. The veld food plants of the Khoikhoin takes centre stage in what is a spectacular and colourful homage to the culinary possibilities of our indigenous plants and animals. A knowledge that has been ‘known’ and handed down for generations. The inclusion of recorded stories, recipes and cooking practices marks this book as a narrative gem sure to claim your heart as well as your senses.


West Coast Veldkos: Askoek – South African Country Life

Standing at the heart of this indigenous Khoikhoin cuisine is the open hearth. The braai. Roosterkoek, potjies, ash baking, vleis op die braai and beyond to biltong…these are all Khoi traditions. It really does speaks to the horrific success of their marginalization through processes of dispossession, colonialism and genocide that their cultural and culinary influences are hardly acknowledged in South Africa in the present day.

is ONe of my tasks as Historian to share what it is I know? To work towards getting what I know ‘known’ by others? On the other hand, what is much harder to do than this is to get to know what you know, the stories of your family and past, the losses you have inherited and what you define as your heritage and why. We need to get our ‘knowns’ in conversation with each other in the hope that we can create new ways of knowing and understanding each other in the present.