An unusual tea set designed in 1997 by Peter Mtombeni

Compiled by: Corine Meyer

Photos: Dr Johnny van Schalkwyk

A tea pot will always be a teapot because of it functionality, but a teapot can be more than a mere teapot when it carries a signature of conscious making. One potter who has unequivocally defended an alternative view of a teapot is the ceramics artist Peter Mthombeni. Having come to ceramics via graphic design, he has not inherited the legacy of the Anglo-Oriental tradition. The vessels this talented artist creates reflect a new identity in ceramic expression that offers a challenge to previously established dogmas.

Mthombeni is well known for his functional ware and vessel sculptures (vases and teapots of unusual shapes and sizes), but what must be considered as his most creative work is his Ndebele tea set of which only ten were produced. Innovative, unusual and unique in form and decoration, this tea set was inspired by the Ndebele kraal with its round and square houses, the sculptured columns at the entrance of the Ndebele homestead, and the colourful geometric mural art.

The wooden tray is decorated with geometric patterns typical of those which women make with their fingers on the floors of their homes. The walls are painted on wood with traditional patterns. A porcelain teapot (main square house) and two cups (rondavels) with ceramic imitation thatch roofs have been placed into the structure and the entrance posts (pediments) consist of a covered milk jug and a covered sugar bowl.

Peter Mthombeni has incorporated the symbolism and connotation of Ndebele homestead in this tea set and won second prize for this unique work of art at the Vita Art Now Awards in 1997.

He exhibited one of the ten tea sets at the opening of the DNMCH building in 1997 (at the time known as African Window), where it was immediately purchased for the Museum collection.

Peter Mthombeni is a talented ceramic artist, working professionally since 1989, and has already achieved countless awards and recognition.

He started his artistic life in 1984 when he was registered as a student in the Fine Arts Department at the School of art and Design, Technikon Witwatersrand and that laid the foundation for his future career. The fact that he was the only black student in the department made no difference to his determination to become a skilled and creative artist in printmaking.

While studying for his Fine Arts Diploma he showed a particular interest in ceramic art and chose ceramics as one of his minor subjects and so began his voyage of discovery and expression through the medium of clay.

After a short period of teaching ceramics and printmaking at the Pelmama Academy in Soweto and at the Pretoria Technikon in 1989, he returned to the Technikon Witwatersrand to study for his National Higher Diploma in Ceramic Design. Here he finally learnt how to basically make an art out of pottery. He graduated with distinction in 1992, winning the Rector’s medal for academic achievement.

His field of studies lay in the stylistic influences of Europe on African art and design. These multicultural interests merge in his Ndebele tea set. The forms and decoration of the teapot, cups, milk jug and sugar bowl, that are so simple yet so sophisticated, reveal the absorption of his African roots (he was born of Ndebele parents) and his Western art training and these are further deepened with studies of other art forms, such as print making.

The Ndebele geometric patterns of pure colour – red, blue, green yellow and orange – that pinpoint intersecting lines, almost mathematical in a Western abstract aesthetic, which lift the piece from the mundane, making it both a functional holder, as well as a decorative piece. It demonstrates his superb technical mastery as well as his sense of shape and colour. Every detail in this work has been carefully considered, right down to the tray on which it rests.

It has a strong aesthetic impact, but it also expresses and communicates social, cultural and ideological values.

Mthombeni used the vessel as a metaphor for illustrative ideas that reach beyond utility. The timeless and sophisticated beauty of this work complements any contemporary interior. The set is neither practical nor figurative, neither pictorial, nor narrative. Perhaps it is simply pleasing to look at and is prised for this very quality.

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