Image: South Africa (Twentieth century), Beer Fermentation Vessel, Gift of Douglas Dawson in honor of David T. Owsley

Written by Tori Smith, Public Relations and Social Media Assistant

Dim lights highlight the two figures that are hidden within the Africa gallery. Beside them are two vessels, one from South Africa. 

Today, September 6, is Eswatini’s Independence Day. Eswatini, a country in Southern Africa, was originally known as Swaziland. It gained its independence in 1968. To celebrate its country adopting a new constitution, it’s important to celebrate the Southern African art we have showcased in DOMA. 

A Beer Fermentation vessel sits strongly beneath the woman figure. Its potter, unknown, is an unidentified woman from the Zulus. 


The Zulus are the largest ethnic group in Southern Africa. Although most Zulus are commonly found living in the South Africa’s Gauteng Province, they can also be found in communities like Zambia, Lesotho, and Eswatini.  

Singing, dancing, and drumming are the Zulus’ main art forms. They also enjoy storytelling and poetry. The Zulus who reside in rural areas spend time weaving and making pots, such as the one found in the Africa gallery.  

The vessels in Zulu culture are sometimes used during important life events like funerals and weddings, but also used between ancestors. Coined an Ukhamba (plural: izinkamba), the round vessel is used for communal drinking.  

The tradition

According to the Timoty S. Y. Lam Museum of Anthropology, pottery in the Zulu culture is an artform passed down from mother to daughter. 

This tradition is confirmed by two of the most well-known Zulu ceramicists, mother and daughter, Siphiwe Nala and Nesta Nala. They formed a partnership, and their works were hard to tell apart from each other. Nesta eventually bore seven children, one predeceasing her. The six children (Siphiwe’s grandchildren) all became potters. It was traditional for girls to start working with clay at an early age. One of her children started at age nine, while the others at 11.  

Before Nesta started signing her pots, she would carve in an eight-petal flower to note the creation was hers. Siphiwe invented the eight-petal flower, but they carved it slightly differently.  

While the vessel found in DOMA was used for brewing, there were other reasons why Zulus created different vessels. Those reasons could be for transport, storage, or even medicinal purposes.  The vessel that sits in our gallery was created using a burnishing process. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to burnish something is to make it shiny or lustrous especially by rubbing. 

According to the Art Institue of Chicago, the raised welts found on the pot in DOMA are among the most common embellishments of Zulu pottery. This could symbolize the scarification of Zulu women, or the herds of cattle owned by a wealthy family. Scarification is the act of permanently marking the body by cutting through or branding the skin. 

Learn more

If you’re interested in learning more about the Zulu culture and the art they have created, the Pucker Gallery in Boston has created a guide of conversation pieces of Zulu pottery they have at their gallery. View the guide here

As always, thank you for reading the DOMA Insider! DOMA is free and open to the public; we are open Tuesday – Friday 9:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., and Saturday from 1:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. Check out our website at