SA’s own collectable - 'The Dlamini' pottery

2010-11-27 00:00

HOW did you get into making pottery for a living?

I have always been a “maker”. In fact I funded my studies in theatre arts at the tender age of 17 through making one-off designer bags for Durban Arts. But it was a chance encounter on the steps of Camden Arts School in London with potter Mo Abdalla from North Africa who channelled and inspired my passion for hand building with clay. The joy of making something beautiful from a simple lump of clay lived with me long after I had returned to South Africa and I am eternally grateful to be sustaining our life on that commitment to my creativity.

In 1999, I took a leap of faith, giving up a career in advertising in favour of that passion, and within a very short time became a regular top-selling artist at Pietermaritzburg’s Art in the Park which is a fantastic boost for any artist.

As you can imagine, a fully functioning pottery studio requires an enormous amount of costly equipment, so it was those early selling exhibitions that slowly and diligently funded the growth of my studio and ultimately set up the base from which my commercial studio Zulu-lulu™ could grow.


You’ve built up a successful business; do you still have time to be creative ?

Fortunately for me I get to live, eat, sleep creative while balancing it out with good business practice.

There is no moulding or mass production involved with our Zulu-lulu ceramics as each piece is individually handmade. I am therefore fortunate in that I can remain true to both the creative process and the spirit of the maker.

The growth of Zulu-lulu over the past five years has required that I divide my time between the studio work and my individual hand-coiled pots.

Hard work, honesty and dedication is made easier with the help of my husband and business partner Stuart, who made a career-changing decision in 2004 to join me in making Zulu-lulu the success it is.

What’s the difference between your work and that of Zulu-lulu ?

Stuart and I have always marketed Trayci Tompkins and Zulu-lulu separately, although understandably there is a common spirit uniting the two.

My individual hand-coiled smoke or raku-fired vessels are numbered and carry my signature. Each piece grows slowly into what I feel is a “character” in vessel form. Having all the works documented (now working on my 360th piece) I have the joy of knowing where most have found loving homes. I continue to sell these pieces off to local exhibitions or through commissions or export to galleries abroad.

As a commercial studio, Zulu-lulu ceramics have become a brand with a look and feel all of their own, proudly represented by prestigious galleries and a few select outlets throughout the country. Here we all work together as a team, often with our small studio group having each had a hand in the making of a single piece — as is the case with our infamous Dlamini family of figurines.

I also try to remain true to my ethos of “putting the art back into craft”, so when I design a piece it is with the maker’s hands and spirit in mind, which ultimately gives all the ceramics we make their own individual character.


Your Dlaminis have become a midlands icon. What is their origin?

Tim Dlamini started off working part time in our garden at our then Hilton home and soon I was enlisting his help with my rather risky and experimental raku firings in the studio. Often we would mould little faces biding our time around the clay-mixing machine sharing philosophies … as you do. I found his enthusiasm and inquiring mind infectious to the point that it inspired me to experiment with the concept of a very raw and naive statue carrying an external thought or feeling. That then became a symbolic little clay piece on top of the head representing a quirky tradition seen in both Africa and Mexico — the two continents I source most of my inspiration from. Before we knew it, we were packaging Dlamini figurines in handmade tin boxes across the globe and enlisting the help of others.

My original idea of creating the African version of the collectable Troll in the UK became the springboard to what Zulu-lulu™ is today. Tim continues to create each face filled with expression, stuffing a little handmade pinch pot with newspaper (The Witness in fact — which burns out through the holes in his nose) before paddling it into the shape of a head and adding to it its individual features. Often we hear stories from people of how their Dlamini looks “the spitting image of uncle so and so” or how they received one as an award at a prestigious ceremony, sporting event or as a welcome gift for their new home. We have had family commissions and special requests for wedding gifts for the bride and groom. We have sculptured family pets, loved scooters, running shoes and intricate mining hats. Each one individual and one of a kind.

The Dlamini has become many things — from a collectable individual piece of art to a unique corporate gift to a truly proudly South African Oscar for outstanding achievement. I can honestly say that I don’t think there is a country on this planet that is without a Zulu-lulu Dlamini.


Have there been any innovations?

Recently we launched our Zulu-lulu Art bar for kids, which wraps the veranda of our ceramic boutique, allowing for children to share in our passion of expression and carefree creativity. It’s a great way for kids to work with the challenges and rewards of painting a three dimensional ceramic object while having fun just creating something special in an outdoor environment. It is also the perfect venue for your next birthday party or simply a fun relaxing place to do something creative as a family.

Last year we took ownership of our new property, Lionsgate on the Midlands Meander — just a stone’s throw from our ceramic boutique. As a member of the Midlands Meander, the decision once again to combine home and working studio addressed our needs logistically for the business and emotionally for me the artist. Lionsgate, has united our home and business once again while giving me the space and inspiration an artist needs. Later this year we will throw open the gates and invite all to our new gallery space which will also represent the works of well- known and respected artists.


If you hadn’t been a potter, what would you have been ?

People often remind me how fortunate I am to be following my passion while empowering and employing others. And I think my choices and experiences in life have led me to this point. It certainly has been an eventful and rewarding journey.

One that I guess could only be matched by a leading role as a Red Indian Chief in feathers on a big budget movie … perhaps?

Finalists in ‘t he Witness’ True Stories of KZN competition will each receive a Dlamini donated by Trayci Tompkins at the awards ceremony next week.

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