The Light from Africa Ceramic Art Studio and Gallery lies along Rhodes Drive on the edge of Constantia Nek. As you enter the parking lot usually reserved for those intent on a walk, you’ll see the sign for Light from Africa tacked up on a very tall tree (it’s part of the Cape Town Design Route).
The incredible building in which the foundation is housed is hidden in amongst the trees just below the walk along Constantia Nek towards Cecilia Forest. If you’ve done this walk and accidentally taken the right fork in the road, you’ll have passed this gorgeous building and wondered, no doubt like me, what it is for …
The building, which I mistakenly assumed was a conference venue (which it was, but only for a short period of its interesting history) is in fact the studio and gallery of the Light of Africa Foundation, a not for profit organisation that promotes a group of ceramic artists who produce handcrafted African art and sculptures. The foundation is pretty phenomenal as it not only empowers ceramic artists financially, it also gives all its profits to the building and maintaining of Children’s Centres for Aids orphans in the Western Cape.
I was at the gallery incognito. Trying to look as though I knew something about ceramics. The event was officially to launch Justin Kerrod’s limited edition book entitled: South African Ceramics, their Marks, Monograms & Signatures. At the same time there was an exhibition of local ceramics by various potters and potteries, which I have an idea is there pretty much most of the time – they act as something of an inspiration to the foundation’s resident artists.
I love pottery and ceramics. But my knowledge is paltry. However I was there with a dear friend who knows an awful lot about local art, although she’ll deny this and mutter something to the contrary. Apart from my enthusing over a Linn Ware vase (it was the most delicate pink, my favourite colour, and the only piece vaguely pink on exhibition) I couldn’t tell a Hym Rabinowitz from an Esias Bosch – I’m virtually an ignoramus.
Be that as it may, I had an awesome time. We whirled around the exhibit picking out the more well-known of the pottery on exhibit, whilst I got a first-hand run down of the local ceramic scene. Milling around me at the exhibition were various wanna-be’s and must-be-seens as well as the genuine article (you can always spot the successful artists as they’re the most assured about where they can stand at these kind of events).
But it was the building that was the star of the show. This beautiful studio in the Cecilia Forest has almost always been a haven for art. It could not be home to anything other. Almost every wall is given over to huge glass panes that let in a great deal of natural light. Huge windows, a predominance of wood, wonderfully organic movement throughout, high ceilings and views to die for almost give the space license to create.
Originally this was the base of the Kalahari Ware Studio (their work was also on display at the exhibition). They exported a selection of sculptures, candelabra and dinner services to a number of countries around the world but in 1989 the founders, Russian sculptor Alexander Klopcanovs and his ceramicist wife, Elma Vestman, moved on and for the next decade or so the building was used as I had thought, as a conference and function venue. It largely looked derelict from the outside, but perhaps that is how conference venues look when not in use.
Then in 2008 the Light from Africa Foundation restored the building to its rightful space as a ceramic studio and gallery. The group of ceramic artists, all from previously disadvantaged backgrounds, were working from Noordhoek farm village before moving here. Every piece the artists produce is a collector’s item with a unique product code, and if you’re interested.
It might be that I’m slightly jaded but I can’t get excited by the idea that each of these beautiful pieces of art, and they are lovely, can also be used as a candleholder – this might once have been an innovative notion but I find it a little tacky to be honest. The candle holder is a play on the Light from Africa theme. Despite serving as sculptures, bowls and vessels each of the ceramics delivers warmth and light both for those who buy them and for those who are supported by the proceeds. By supporting a candle, each piece helps spread the light from Africa to the rest of the world…
Regardless of whether you think this an ingenious idea or not, they make a wonderful gift, if you want to buy Christmas presents early (gad, did I just say the big ‘C’ word, and we’re only halfway through the year!?).
The foundation helps train their artists and then allows each of them to develop their individual potential. Would-be artists join the studio, are encouraged to express themselves and are introduced to different kinds of clay, ceramic tools and various methods to work with clay – some like working with raw clay, others prefer painting and glazing as highlights. The studio has novice and experienced ceramic artists at any one time and each is left to find their own ‘voice’ so to speak.
Once the artist is more adept at using the clay as a medium, they begin to take on more challenging work, using traditional and modern day figures, animals and stories as inspiration. The pieces on display draw from cultural symbols, myths and humour and have been described as ‘fresh’ and ‘inspiring’.
I’m not surprised if you have a look around their studio. High ceilings, a lot of natural light, ample space, material and tools with which to work, a kiln etc. next door in which to fire the ceramics, and an entire room full of other South Africans’ works to give them inspiration. I suddenly have a desire to manipulate clay…