This book is a catalogue of Frank Jolles's collection of Zulu beer vessels supplemented by other Zulu beer vessels found in private and public collections in South Africa and the United States. It gives a detailed account of style developments of Zulu beer vessels from the nineteenth into the twentieth century. As background information, a history of the KwaZulu Natal region in the nineteenth century sets the context for the styles it documents.
The historical record provides data that helps us understand Zulu geographic movement and how these patterns were disrupted by Theophillus Shepstones's demarcation of space between blacks and whites in the region. This exercise essentially hindered and altered their ability to exercise their chosen way of life. Needless to say, it also impacted the production of material culture.
With this setting in mind, the book categorizes and interrogates the significance of beer vessels within Zulu communities. Beer vessels are categorized into six regions: Phongolo; Nongoma; Hlabisa; Melmoth-Eshowe; Lower Thukela; and Msinga. Each region is given its own chapter and boasts a unique application of existing Zulu decorative motifs on the pot. These regional styles vary from the shape of the pot to the motifs that ornament its outer surface. Jolles also describes varied techniques, such as sticking clay bits to make motifs on the surface (known as amasumpa) or incisions outside the pot that mark these motifs.
Jolles's study provides enough knowledge of Zulu pottery for a reader to begin identifying the differences of each pot by function and regional origin. This becomes a useful guide to anyone interested in Zulu pottery, as the styles are explained at length. As a person of Hlubi ancestry who grew up speaking isiZulu, practicing Zulu customs taken from my mother's Zulu identity, I also found the book useful for clarifying styles that I had seen but whose origin I did not exactly understand. It was also useful for describing other regional styles about which I was unsure. As such it is a useful tool to anyone who is interested in Zulu pottery and motifs.
The book is beautifully illustrated with high resolution images, making it pleasant for the viewer to engage with the vessels. It is easy to navigate across different styles from different regions, as they are clearly categorized.
The relationship between these pots and other material culture like beadwork (ubuhlalo) and woodcarvings (ugqoko) is also noted but not discussed at length. Still, the book offers clues that can one can follow up on via other sources.
These six identified regional styles share the basic forms of Zulu pots—imbiza, uphiso, ukhamba, and umancishana—and differ in stylization. The basic shape of the Zulu pot is round with a flat base, which distinguishes Zulu pottery from other African pottery; however, regional stylization creates variations of more bag-shaped pots to broad-shouldered forms with a narrow base (characteristic of eMsinga style) to some that have necks at the opening.
This varies according to region and artist. Pot-making is a female vocation due to its association with cooking and the preparation and serving of beer. The diffusion of styles through marriage is interesting, as women introduce new techniques and forms from their home regions into those of their husbands once they marry and move.
Jolles discusses techniques of making the four main forms of Zulu pottery, supported by archaeological evidence to give a stratified evolutionary process to the ways and materials of making pottery over time. These techniques involve the way the clay is fired to burnishing and the materials used at specific times. The size of the pot also informs us about its function:, the larger ones (mainly izimbiza and amaphiso) are used for cooking and storage; the smaller ones (ukhamba and umancishana) are used to serve beer.
The book goes one step further and dedicates an entire chapter to the lids (izimbenge) that accompany the pots. Izimbenge are also analyzed according to motifs used to give an account of their origin and significance. Also discussed are the changing styles of making izimbenge from basket lids to incorporation of beads and wires.
The archaeological record dating back to about 1500 ad gives an account of pottery in the region before the rise of the Zulu nation state. The beer vessels excavated in the Phungashe region were mostly undecorated, which implies that the decoration is a later practice. A similar outcome was discovered at an excavation at Nqabashe, with the majority of the clay shards undecorated and unburnished.
The archaeological record in combination with illustrations made by Europeans who visited this region in the late eighteenth century shows that the Zulu style of pots became more and more burnished over time. This evidence also shows that the use of basket vessels started to diminish towards the end of the eighteenth century in favor of clay pots that became more burnished and decorated.
We learn, too, that missionaries prohibited the consumption of beer, among other things. This threatened Zulu customs that influenced the use of darkened vessels that did not reflect much light, as “the blackening of the beer vessels constituted an invitation to the ancestral spirits to be present in ceremonies and sip their beer in the comfort of darkness” (p. 25). In this way, the making of these pots was adapted for the survival of the rituals that the pots signify. The darkened vessels provided a less obvious instrument for practicing a customary way of life so that the missionaries could not identify and discourage the invocation of ancestral spirits.
This background information helps to create a narrative that shows stylistic changes and the factors that influenced these changes, ranging from cultural diffusion to demic diffusion to local adaptations as a response to a changing environment. These changes were sometimes influenced by market forces as the makers of the pots tried to meet the demands of North American and European collectors in order to increases sales.
The artist Phiwayinkosi MamMthewthwa Ngobese of Mayakazi Hlabisa made pots for the Mona Market that were different from the ones she made for her neighbors, responding to the demands of international collectors. Phiwayinkosi narrates the two-day walk that she and her daughter had to take in order to reach Mona Market, where she would trade her work. The market provided more cash than she would get back home and therefore provided incentive for the long journey.
The book does not describe the motifs on these pots beyond decorative. This is an unfortunate oversight when one takes into account recent research into African writing systems such as that found in Saki Mafundikwa's Afrikan Alphabets (2006) or Christine Mullen Kreamer et al., Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art (2007). Zulu motifs can be symbols that communicate ideas in conjunction to the use of color. Perhaps language and culture were a barrier in accessing this kind of information for Frank Jolles. There are certain things that one will not tell you simply because you are not speaking to them in the language they understand. Language in this case is a way of being rather than speaking.
The book is a useful and meaningful catalogue of Zulu pots in the eighteenth and nineteenth century that readers and researchers will revisit over the years. I can also see myself using it as an instrument to familiarize my nephews and nieces about their Zulu culture. It is well researched and gives useful insights into the story, meaning and function of Zulu pottery.