REPRESENTATIONS OF CATTLE CAN ACT AS MARKERS of contemporary South African identities. The ceramics of Peter Mthombeni fuse various traditions (Western and African, colonial and ethnic). Mthombeni utilises cattle as cultural markers, not only to affirm his individual history but also to reflect a new cultural space in a democratic South Africa.
Mthombeni's ceramic vessels and utilitarian ware are categorised as craft, not art (1); they are positioned in the grey area between 'fine art' and utilitarian objects or craft. While he names his vessels 'vases,' (2) (indeed they are clearly recognisable as this Western form, for instance the Hedgehog Vases, as well as the Fang Vase), the surface treatments act like metaphoric cattle skins wrapping spaces thus reminding of utilitarian ethnic vessels that have a purpose in spiritual ritual. (3) Such a reading permits a symbolic significance to the vase form.
Mthombeni received an academic education in fine art, and has exhibited work in designated 'art' spaces such as galleries, and must, in part, be shaped by these experiences. The art institution or art world, (4) its cornerstones being the museum, the gallery, the critic and the academy, ratifies whether an object is art or not. It valorises, categorises and even excludes objects; some objects are elevated to 'high art' while others are demoted to be 'mere' craft, or simple objects of utility. In South Africa, the boundaries of these traditionally separate disciplines are slower to disappear than in the Western world. However, since the first democratic elections in 1994, the boundaries of art have expanded to include previous political exclusions and a multiplicity of cultures. These boundaries continue to shift away from former rigidities in order to celebrate an African specificity. This allows artists from different traditions to exhibit a porosity, assimilating and re-interpreting images, sources and styles originating in different cultural groups. In this way historical ('traditional') difference becomes less prominent, less separating, more 'creolised'.
Mthombeni prioritises an African identity. My interview with him reveals that this is due to more than mere geographical situation. He refutes a deliberately provocative use of 'other' imagery.
Mthombeni suggests that his inclusion of European styles was a logical outflow of his studies in ceramic history at the Technikon of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg), not a deliberate effort to comment on his relation to colonialism (Swanepoel, 2005). His use of Western references in conjunction with the narrative elements in his work provide for complex readings which nevertheless reflect Western art traditions favoured by colonialism. However, such references are reshaped by his indigenous origins.
History (personal as well as cultural history) is still …