If it?s a clay pot you want, in any size or shape, Molepolole-based matronly traditional potters, Mmantshonyana Ditshekiso, and younger sister, Keseitsheletse Ditshotlo, will deliver. ?Its business,? Ditshekiso exclaims, ?if there is a demand, we supply.?
Ditshekiso and her sibling are gifted artisans and were praised by the National Gallery?s Principal Curator, Mr Lesiga Segola, last Tuesday. Segola spoke of the sisters? skill of moulding perfectly rounded clay pots by hand, without the aid of a pottery wheel. Their pottery, Segola added, displays perfection, seemingly possible only through machine-aided production. They primarily produce dinkgwana (traditional clay pots) commercially.
?I have had punters sketching clay pots on the ground,? Ditshekiso revealed. ?They also specify how I should decorate them.?
Currently, a walk around the Octagon Gallery exhibits traditional pottery produced by women from Tswana-speaking groups across southern Botswana. A giant vase (funnel-like pot) is seen here and a typically traditional pot there. It shows borrowed ideas from Western influence in pottery of purely aesthetical value. Some pottery prominently displays influence from neighbouring countries such as Zambia and Zimbabwe presumably brought by economic immigrants who sell their indigenous crafts.
This causes the University of Botswana?s Dr Seloma, who is a member of the African Languages and Literature faculty, to ask whether we should be concerned with these changes brought on by market demand in traditional pottery. Is this ruining or improving indigenous pottery?
Traditional pottery is among Botswana?s nearly extinct art forms. Principal Curator Segola likens the rare skill to that of traditional thatching. It was revealed that contextual studies in the secondary school art syllabus do not include Setswana crafts, instead, Egyptian and European art history is offered.
Dr Seloma who admits to being a folklorist, has carried out research on traditional pottery. She was invited by the Museum to make a presentation, titled The Intangible Heritage attached to Traditional Heritage in Botswana, and says a Setswana clay pot is a life metaphor.
?The four elements rudimentary to life are earth, water, fire and air, and are used in traditional pottery. The roundedness of the traditional shape of a pot is symbolically a womb, which brings life,? Dr Seloma told the attending audience, which included junior secondary school students.
The historical uses of traditional pots, both utilitarian and ritualistic, were also a metaphor of life, Dr Seloma continued, not only is it used to store and keep water (sometimes beer) cool but clay pots were used in rites of passage. When young men went for initiations, and did not survive, a clay pot crashed at the gate of their family homes communicated their death to parents. A clay pot was also used as a makeshift coffin for stillborn babies.
In rituals, such as rainmaking, a clay pot is also used. A pot was never thrown out with the garbage. In rural homesteads you might just find a dilapidated tshekega, a huge clay pot used for brewing beer, held together by a rope.
An eyesore decrepit traditional clay pot is deemed valuable, for all uses mentioned above including medicinal uses.
Neither is the decorative aspect frivolous, Dr Seloma says, ?because of its portrayal of life, the Setswana speaking Batswana-based groups embellish clay pots around their neck, and some around its ?waist.? Batswana wore their traditional jewellery around the neck and waist.
Due to the profound qualities that Batswana accord a nkgwana, taboos must be observed during the creation of one, Dr Seloma said. Only women in Tswana-speaking groups make pots and no audience is permitted during the making of one.
Women having their menstrual periods are advised against making pots and so are women who have had abortions or miscarriages. Ditshekiso and Ditshotlo, the two potters present at the discussion announced that ?because of our Christian beliefs, we do not observe taboos and have never witnessed the supposed implications.?
Contemporary Batswana potters are not adverse to triangular design that deep bellow the girth from the neck as exhibited in the Octagon Gallery. Whether it is artistic advancement or loaned from a style typical in Kalanga and Shona pottery, Tswana pottery is changing.
Contemporary Batswana no longer adhere to traditional uses of dinkgwana; we now either admire dinkgwana from afar or decorate our homes with them and use them to pot plants. Dr Seloma noted that tourism also plays a hand in the changes found in clay pots.
?Miniature clay pots are now available, small enough souvenirs to sit in a traveller?s suitcase,? she said. Smoother, shinier and user-friendly ceramics are also available, though more expensive, vying for the same tourist market. Ditsheko, being business-minded says, ?We are actually trying to get into ceramics as well, all we need is financial assistance.?
Dr Seloma believes the existing condition of dinkgwana must be observed. Citing an example, she noted that clay pots are cheaper than ceramics. Could it be because we do not understand the true value of a nkgwana or is this us exploiting our parents?