Living a Legend


Jabulile Nala comes from a family of potters. A story in her family goes that her grandmother dug enough clay before she died to insure that the next generation would have plenty to provide for themselves. This story may be apocryphal, but it illustrates the centricity of clay in the economic lives of the Nala family.  It is true, however, that Jabu and her sisters still dig their clay from the same place in the mountain as their granny dug hers. Even after Jabu moved from the family homestead in Oyaya in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, to Johannesburg, she took Nala family clay with her, insisting that true Nala pots have to come from that clay. It’s hard to imagine a family’s cultural identity more rooted in the land.
Jabu’s mother, Nesta Nala, supported her family with pottery, first making pots for the local market, just as her mother Siphiwe had. Beer pots were at the center of Siphiwe’s  production, large ones for brewing beer; smaller ones for sharing beer during all important Zulu rituals. Births, deaths and marriages are all celebrated by sharing beer.  Nesta, however, took her pottery-making a step further.  Her pieces were more graceful and highly refined. Her work found its way into art galleries in the cities. She became widely known, recognized by her own South African government and the Smithsonian Institute in the United States.
Jabu continues in Nesta’s footsteps, using the same techniques her mother and grandmother used to make her pots. The clay is from Oyaya. The pots are all formed from coils – or sausages, as she calls them – carefully smoothed together and burnished with a river stone until shiny. Some designs are incised; strips or knobs of clay are added to others. Her tools are minimal. All are common household objects: spoons, stones, the metal stay from an umbrella.
The pots are fired as they have been for generations. If they’re not quite dry, she dries them completely by putting hot coals in them. They are then surrounded with wood and fired in the open without a kiln. There’s nothing to tell her the temperature. She knows by their look and  sound when they’re done. Many pots are purely utilitarian. If they’re for cooking or brewing beer, they are left brown. If the pots are used in ceremonies, they’re put in a second, smoky, fire to blacken them for the ancestors who prefer the dark.
Following in her mother’s footsteps, Jabu has extended her repertoire from pots for traditional uses to new shapes that use traditional forms as their starting point. She’s now pushing the limits farther by creating animal sculptures. They are the animals of the countryside she grew up in – cows, sheep, goats and ducks – executed with humor and grace.
Sales are limited in South Africa, so twice a year Jabu comes to the United States to sell her work. Look for her at the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe in July, 2019, and the Cultural Survival Bazaars in the Boston area in July and December.
To contact Jabulile, email
Ann Schunior is a studio potter whose work is inspired by traditional crafts around the world. Ann travels widely to meet craftspeople who still work in the old ways. For more about Ann, visit her website,