A Message of Healing: Andile Dyalvane’s Ancesteral Dreamscape, ‘iThongo’

Widely considered one of South Africa’s foremost ceramic artists, Andile Dyalvane was born in 1978 in the small village of Ngobozana, near Qobo-Qobo in the Eastern Cape. He grew up farming and looking after his father’s cattle herd – sewing a deep connection to the land and his Xhosa culture that resonates powerfully through his work today. His medium of clay, or umhlaba (mother earth), is at its most fundamental a life-affirming connection to the soil.

An extensive collection of sculptural ceramic seating, iThongo is Dyalvane’s fourth solo exhibition. iThongo, meaning “ancestral dreamscape” in Xhosa, refers to the medium through which messages (uYalezouLwimi lwabaPhantsi) are transmitted from the ancestors. As such, it is an essential energetic link between the past, the present and the future, and the vital connection that fuels Dyalvane’s artistic practice and spiritual being. The artist states: “My intentions with developing an extended body of work under the title iThongo is to highlight a gathering of dreams, seated in the soul, held by the spirits of our ancestors. Symbols are visual tools harnessed to more effectively impart meanings within messages – codes, if you will – that aid stories. The language of dreams is symbolic and therefore realised as uyalezo, messages from our ancestral spirits.”

In a reversal of traditional art-world practice, his galleries – Southern Guild and Friedman Benda – premiered the entire collection of ceramic sculptures at the artist’s family homestead in Ngobozana. For two days last November, guests sat upon the chairs inside the family kraal as the community gathered to celebrate one of their own, honour their ancestors, feast, sing and dance.

At the centre of the festivities was Dyalvane: a man of irrepressible energy and generous spirit, whose message of healing and love for his culture unleashed a wave of pride in this remote village. “Showing this collection first in Ngobozana was essential for restorative healing – for the sake of my ancestors and every person in my village,” he said. “In all humbleness, I wanted to help those at home to see themselves – how worthy and great they all truly are. My work is about restoring dignity to people, so they can experience and acknowledge traditional cultures without the fear of being labelled ‘backwards’.”

He presented the people of Ngobozana with 100 terracotta beer pots – one for every household – to use for drinking traditional brewed beer. The gesture recalls an earlier gift just over 10 years ago, when he returned home bearing a unique clay vessel for his father, to replace the mass-produced plastic buckets that have become makeshift drinking vessels over the years. The gift was intended to show his father the craft that he had successfully turned into a livelihood, but it unfurled into a moment of profound awakening for Dyalvane as it set in motion a renewed embrace of Xhosa tradition among his immediate community.

The weekend’s festivities in November included various ceremonies honouring their lineage and remembering the dispossession experienced by previous generations. Wearing traditional Xhosa beadwork and wrapped in patterned blankets, Dyalvane and his family members paid their respects to their ancestors’ spirits in a solemn procession across the valley and up the hill to the site of the old village, which had been forcibly removed by the Apartheid government in 1965. There they installed uMalusi (Herdsman) from the iThongo collection on a cement plinth overlooking ancestral burial grounds, reciting blessings and performing cleansing rites with traditional herbs. uMalusi will be on permanent display here – an offering from the artist to all of the surrounding villages and a place to grieve what was lost, come together in song and heal the scars of displacement.

Now on show at Southern Guild in Cape Town before travelling to Friedman Benda in New York, iThongo comprises 18 sculptural stools, chairs and benches, exhibited in the custom of Xhosa ceremonial gatherings, in a circular arrangement around a fire hearth and herbal offerings. Hand-coiled in terracotta clay, their voluptuous, rounded bases give rise to sculptural backrests stretching up to almost a metre tall. The intricate form of each is based on a single pictogram or glyph from a series of close to 200 symbols that Dyalvane has designed to denote important words in Xhosa life – such as entshonalanga (sunset), igubu (drum), umalusi (herdsman) and izilo (totem animals) – and which also relate to the natural world and more universal human themes and concepts.

Dyalvane’s symbolic lexicon has been an ongoing project, born of his interest in preserving traditional Xhosa knowledge, cultural practices and language. The symbols began as calligraphic ink drawings that he has codified over the years, dating back to the work he produced for his ground-breaking solo show at Friedman Benda, Camagu, in 2016. Their debossed forms also emerge from and dissolve into the sculptures’ clay surface, an effect created using tools such as carved stamps and linocut tiles. His coded language thus becomes embedded into both the form and the skin of each piece.

Taking their inspiration from both Dyalvane’s personal memories and various African artefacts, the seating objects are low, sitting close to the earth – the ground revered as an ancient portal for ancestral communion. Their forms are curved and spherical, echoing the traditional rondavel structures and kraal enclosures in which livestock are kept. Circular geometry is believed to facilitate a free exchange of energy in Xhosa spiritual practices (as it is in many other belief systems), in keeping with the organic shapes found in nature.

A series of interdisciplinary collaborations that Dyalvane initiated with other artists further broadens the exhibition’s scope. Sound healer and musician Nkosenathi Ernie Koela produced an immersive composition combining traditional instruments and sounds created by the artworks; Sisonke Papu, an Umtata-based poet, traditional healer and co-founder of the ISPILI Network in the Eastern Cape, wrote about Dyalvane’s use of symbology for the catalogue; and textile artist Onesimo Bam made a collection of garments hand-painted in indigo dye for him to wear for the ceremonial presentation of his work to his village and to gift to his elders.

Part of the power of Dyalvane’s work is that it insists simultaneously on commonality and difference. His vocabulary of symbols is distilled to an almost abstract essence that communicates across cultures. iThongo invites audiences to sit down and listen, to bear witness to one another and the passage of time. It is an assertion of Black pride, and of our shared humanity.

iThongo is showing at Southern Guild in Cape Town until 25 February 2021. From 29 April to 29 May 2021 the works will be on show at Friedman Benda in New York.

Photographs by Adriaan Louw, courtesy of Southern Guild and Friedman Benda.

Between 10 and 5