Date:05 July, 2019
Madoda Fani – a man from Gugs (as Gululetu is affectionately known in the Cape) who is set to become a ceramic super star: who has set his sights on rivalling Magdalene Odundo’s fame as being the potter with the most expensive pots in the world ever to be auctioned. He is deadly serious in achieving his goals.
His oeuvre so far is as impressive as his capacity for hard work and his insatiable curiosity about the world around him. He is also someone who gives back constantly in teaching, mentoring and helping others less fortunate than himself. However, his journey through life, through clay, has not been a smooth ride.
From child-hood it would seem that the world of art, of creating art, was destined to be his career because of his natural ability to draw and paint, which was identified formally when he was ten years old. In the 1980’s when the country was in turmoil and, as he says, there were dead bodies in the streets of the townships and burning tyres everywhere, a programme was initiated to clean up with the “Keep the Cape in Shape” campaign through the placing of rubbish bins – the famous Zibi Cans – around the Peninsula. Madoda was one of those chosen to paint a mural on a wall in this campaign in Gugs. The mural was close to his home where it stayed for about twenty years and he grew up dreaming about art because he was constantly reminded that he created this public mural at the tender age of ten.
Informal teaching about art came for him from Tom Magwa who had no professional qualifications but had a passion for art. Madoda remembers they painted mostly landscape scenes around Guguletu. Another mentor, a neighbour called Noni Mngomezulu, gave him a seminal experience when she took a bunch of local children on a bus tour around the Peninsula visiting art galleries and museums. He saw a painting priced at R700 – an astonishing price in those days. This opened his eyes to the possibility of making a good career out of art.
In 1998 one of the milestones in his life occurred. A friend at the Sivuyile College, Sonwabo Mdingi who had a studio on the college grounds had been booked for a solo ceramics exhibition in Washington DC in the USA. Sonwabo realised that he wasn’t going to be ready in time so he enlisted Madoda’s help – his job was to paint designs on the pots, mostly teapots. He took them home and painted on them at night. However, he soon got bored with the designs and gained Sonwabo’s permission to paint his own designs on the pots. When the exhibition took place in 1998 Madoda had his painted pots exhibited in Washington DC, USA. He was still at school. It was a proud and meaningful moment for him.
After school, he attended Sivuyile College where he had enrolled for a 3-year Fine Arts course covering drawing, painting, computer graphics and some advertising and ceramics, though his main passion was for graphics. However, through lack of funds he was not able to complete the course.
At the time his friend, Andile Dyalvane, was working for Chris Silverstone at her Potters’ Shop in Muizenberg. Through the introduction by Andile of Madoda to Chris, he started work there where he was employed in the studio for eight years. Six months after joining Chris, she insisted he take part in the CSA Regional Exhibition at the Artscape theatre complex in Cape Town. Madoda was very nervous, he was new and didn’t feel he was good enough. But, he says, Chris was young and fired up then and wanted him to take part. Her insistence was well founded – nearly all his work was sold. In 2000, another big event took place in Madoda’s life. Christ Silverstone had applied and been accepted to take part in an exhibition during the Siao D’Art Festival In Burkino Faso. So he travelled to the festival along with a group of people, amongst whom he remembers Simon Msilo and Ian Garrett. Madoda’s work was given 2nd prize. These two accolades were great inspiration for him in furthering his chosen path as a potter. He had been exposed to some smoke-firing during the course of his contact with clay but it was in Burkino Faso that he was first truly inspired by this clay process when he saw the smoked-fired pots of Ian Garrett there. The journey was a sobering experience for all of the South Africans, as a first trip into the northern part of Africa. Madoda says he has never had a problem with people coming from other countries to work in South Africa but after his trip to Burkino Faso he understood very well why people want to come to South Africa. He says he saw terrible poverty there: there was no infrastructure, no jobs.
By 2007, he felt the need to move on and had the confidence to start his own business so he resigned from the Potters’ Shop. But Chris, ever the kind mentor, wanted to help him and she suggested that he create his own work in his own time and when he was ready, they should have a collaborative exhibition. The exhibition went quite well though a few weeks before opening the country slid into a recession so they had to lower their prices to entice buyers.
He had no studio of his own so he worked in different places. He became involved in a programme called “Realistic” in Gugs which was created for the rehabilitation of prisoners. He taught them pottery for about eight months and found this a very rewarding experience. Some of the ex-prisoners were very enthusiastic and excited when he started to teach them how to make pots. The initiator of this programme is Mr. Dixie Madikane, who worked for Correctional Services. He saw the need for such a programme as prisoners had no jobs, nothing to do upon release from prison and they sat about playing cards, just as they had in prison. Upon retirement from Correctional Services he started the programme which continues to this day. At times it was scary for Madoda as some of the men were hardened, prison gang bosses and not used to be told what to do by this soft spoken, young man. He would then call in the people in charge telling them he could not teach such men.
Unfortunately, the funds ran out so Madoda went back to the Potters’ Shop for a few months as Chris had an order in which she needed help. Soon after Kim Sachs offered him a mentorship in Johannesburg. He was finding his own way but he was determined to find a new expression and new forms – completely different from what he had done before. Again, another important event in his career came through Kim Sachs. Although he had done a bit of coiling before, she taught him seriously how to coil and he credits her with this teaching that influenced him in the major form of expression in his work, that of coiled forms. He was staying in the studio and every morning when he woke up he was greatly inspired by the huge, coiled, Zulu pots that he saw there.
2012 saw him take up a post with the ‘Art in the Forest’ Foundation in Cape Town where his job was to paint on bisque ware. However, the management soon opened a branch in Johannesburg and so he returned to work there. This period marks one of the worst but ultimately most important periods in his ceramic career when his mettle and mental strength were sorely tested. He was set up in a studio with Nic Sithole in Yeoville where they produced coiled, smoke-fired pots. For three, long years nearly every pot Madoda made broke. He tried everything – he used the same clay, the same kiln, the same smoke-firing as Nic and he observed the same methods and processes as Nic but still his pots broke. He would make ten pots and pray for one to survive. He would open the kiln and not one was whole. He said he would clean out the kiln and just start wedging. He wanted to produce a lot of work but he couldn’t. He worked (and works), incredibly hard: he is a man driven. He says that the house where he was staying was only about three minutes from the studio so he would work and work and then look at his watch to see it was 1.30 am. He would go home and sleep for a few hours and be back at the studio at 7am – coiling pots that were going to break! But every time they did he would do something different, something better than he had done before, so he kept improving and his skills developed very fast.
Eventually, relief came – some small flicker of light when he submitted one pot to the Gauteng CSA Regional Exhibition (the other two having broken as usual). He was given an award – he was vindicated. Things were moving on and the clouds began to clear. The centre where they were working was to be demolished so they had to find new studio space. Madoda moved to Kliptown in Soweto. With this move, the miracle happened – his pots stopped breaking. He says he has never had a cracked pot since the day he moved to Soweto. A friend asked why he was keeping all the broken pots to which Madoda replied that there was so much work there that he couldn’t just destroy them all. His friend suggested that sometimes perhaps these are what is causing the cracks and they should be destroyed. So Madoda did. He cannot explain it but nothing has cracked since. Out of adversity often good comes. Because of the constant breakages, he learnt each time to do things differently, to improve his skills so that to-day he is an absolute master of his craft. He says he does not regret this hardship because he conquered in the end and it made him stronger and better than before. The conquering over such adversity has given him the security and confidence in his ability to produce beautiful pots.
In Kliptown he was approached to teach again by a ceramic collector, Dr. Mutare. He had an idea to develop a programme to rehabilitate prisoners, as well as to involve the whole community. A group of about 25 people from different backgrounds was formed at the Bocomo Art Centre where there is a gallery and studio on Walter Sisulu Square. Madoda taught all methods and processes for making pots. There was only one wheel which caused problems so he taught them pinch pots. Some people objected, saying pinch pots weren’t going to put food on the table, so they left. This was OK for him because he knew then that he had serious students, who often give him great satisfaction now when he sees them posting on Facebook about their successes in teaching and making a living from pottery.
In 2016, he returned yet again to Cape Town to work with his younger brother, Siyabonga, in their studio and gallery shop in the Palms Centre in Woodstock. When asked what his plans are now, his steely determination and absolute clarity with which he plots his future become evident. He says he has a plan, he always has a plan. His plan before he went to Johannesburg was to win the CSA Regional Exhibition – so he did in 2014. His next plan was to win the CSA top National Exhibition Award – which he did in 2016. He has set his sights for now on a process to turn their present studio into a world class production studio with a balance of bread and butter production work, along with his own, unique, coiled, burnished, carved, smoke-fired, one-off vessels. He will continue to show on exhibitions and in galleries but he also wants to develop the commercial aspect with a good production of ware available on trade shows for overseas and local buyers. He ascertained at a SAGDA trade show In Johannesburg what buyers like and what they want – small, burnished, smoke-fired pots with simple designs. He feels the people in the studio will succeed with the design he has created for these whilst he continues with his more time-consuming one-off vessels. He wants to have a good quantity of ware for mid- year trade shows where the buyers are looking for product for the Christmas trade. Over the years he has sold far and wide – in Miami, Paris and Argentina and still intends to make good on a missed opportunity in Sante Fé in New Mexico. Other international exposure saw him on a 3-week residency in Vallauris sponsored by the Department of Arts and Culture. He went with Andile Dyalvane and Nic Sithole. It was a tight schedule – two weeks making and an exhibition followed in the third week. It was comfortable for Andile and Nic who could throw a good number of pots on the wheel, but not so fine for Madoda, the Coiler, so Nic helped him out. This French residency contributed further to Madoda’s growing body of knowledge and experience of the world around him, as well as in the ceramics milieu.
Alongside the re-structuring and steam lining of their present studio and his determination to improve the quality and quantity of their production, he continues to share his knowledge and expertise with others. In 2017 has was contracted by Taung Bokone Bophirima Design Institute (BBCI) to conduct workshops in the North West Province, specifically in Mafekeng, Taung and Rustenberg where he tutors rural crafts people who have been identified in order to help them improve their skills and increase their output of ware. He teaches a one-week “Product Development” course which involves up-grading their skills and processes to make their products better quality and more economically viable. The participants are all adults with their own individual studios or small scale pottery enterprises. He teaches simply things such as finishing off the bases of pots smoothly so they won’t scratch surfaces. He also teaches them about mould making which increases their production rate. He says taking three days to coil a pot which they then sell for R60 is not as efficient as producing many more pots through press moulding in the same amount of time. In addition, if a client wants ten pots of exactly the same size, it is easier to do this with moulds than by coiling. The oldest person on the course was about 69 years so Madoda made the moulds for this person himself, because the potter’s arm muscles were no longer strong enough.
When quizzed about what makes a Madoda Fani pot, he emphasized that from the beginning he wanted his work to be recognised as his. He says he looks at everything around him – particularly movies and Japanese samurai clothing. He loves the armour plate-like structure of them and it is this which led him to create his immaculate, over-lapping, carved designs. The inspiration for his forms comes from African women – the soft curves of his forms echo the soft curves of the female form. He grew up in the townships where the abuse of women is common but the armour they wear is the smile they present to the world as if nothing bad is happening to them yet at home things are terrible. Women are outwardly soft but inwards very strong.
The insect designs on his pots came about by exploring books bought for him by Chris Silverstone. He was heavily schooled in her dot designs so she suggested that he do something different. She gave him a lot of support. She bought him materials and books. It is here that his love for insect forms was born. He hates flies but is fascinated by their complex eyes, so tiny yet so complicated. He also uses beetle forms: wasps are another design possibility. As children growing up he and the others were told that wasps – unomeva – always sense who is afraid of them in a room so they will go and sting that person. Naturally the children grew up trying to be strong but as they were frightened inside!
His firing methods remain the same. He bisque fires in electric kilns followed by smoke-firing with newspaper and sawdust in drums. Some pots will be smoked in saggars with sawdust as the reduction material. His pots are closed forms as he does not want people to put flowers in them as happened previously when someone complained to him that it leaked and cracked. Closed forms resolve this problem entirely.
Madoda’s philosophy is directed towards continuing the traditional creative expressions of the past with his smoke-fired, coiled pots that reflect the insects and peoples of Africa in his designs and forms, but are created in a contemporary 21st century idiom. Alongside this, his ethical ideals of sharing his knowledge, skills and expertise so generously feed into the African spirit of Ubuntu, making him a man not just of great skill but one with a profound sense of humanity.
He is a workaholic with a burning ambition to fulfil his dream of creating the most amazing pots ever – one pot has not yet been created but it is still in his mind. He is on the road to develop further in order to create this amazing pot! Of this there can be no doubt. The stage is already set with a pot entitled “Metamorphosis” about to enter the world art market when it is auctioned in London at the famous Fine Art Auctioneers, Christies in 2017. This is just the beginning for this African super star in the wings – watch out Magdalene Odundo, you may yet be eclipsed as the creator of the most expensive pots in the world!
– ANN MARAIS, CAPE TOWN, 2017