Sites and Sounds of Uganda
Magic in the potter’s hands
Publish Date: Oct 06, 2013
Magic in the potter’s hands
Henry Bomboka making a bowl on the kick wheel
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By Ernest Bazanye

It starts with what looks like the bowel movement of a rhino that had a nice meal, a nice nap and somewhere to go after, so he just thought, let me plop this out and leave it here.

There is a thick heavy pile of black crumbly material in the corner of the cement verandah. Not soil, quite different. It looks, literally, like crap.

But it is not crap. It is the raw material from which beautiful art is going to be made. It is clay. It has made our pots for generations in all cultures across the world.

I am at Makerere University’s School Of Fine Art with Henry Bomboka, a fine art student at St Lawrence University, who likes to hang around like-minded people. He educated me early to the term “ceramist.” 

“Pottery is an art. Ceramists do not just make a pot. We add art value to it,” he says.

The ceramists at Makerere were preparing for an exhibition that weekend, even though any time you go to the School of Fine Art, there are always things to see lying around: sculptures and paintings and, in this case, pots. 

At the “crap” heap, Bomboka tells me where the best clay comes from: Kisubi, Kajjansi and Mukono have the soils ceramists and potters like best. Bomboka leads me to another odd, quite gross sight — the clay soaking in old tubs. 

The soaking is part of the conversion of the clay (the next part is churning it in a tank called a ball mill) into the smooth, pliable, damp material that pots are made of.

We are in the workshop now. We have walked past shelves of very inventive and attractive pots and plates and other things. One especially eye-catching item is Bomboka’s own creation, a candle-shade. It is a cylinder with decorative holes set down the sides. You light a candle and place it inside for a softer display of light. 

Being at the workshop is like walking through a models’ dressing room before the fashion show. We have voluptuous pots with thin waists and broad bottoms, we have graceful pots with long necks and elegant handles, we have the ones which are still grey and unvarnished, the ones which are half-glazed or painted, the ones awaiting smoking and sanding.

This is the part where the art comes in. Michael Omadi, who I find rubbing a pot with a smooth pebble, tells me there are many ways to make a pot uniquely attractive and each requires its own skill. But first, we have to make the pot. I follow Bomboka to the kick wheel. 

It looks quite modern, or at least European, but he tells me it is very close to what has been used for ages by our ancestors to make pots in Uganda. There are electric ones, but the traditional potter’s wheel is run manually, either with the potter’s foot making it spin, or a child, the potter’s assistant, doing the honours.

Now we take a lump of clean clay, knead it to get out the air pockets and then it is “thrown” onto the wheel. It is quite mesmerising in how graceful it is as the cone of clay surely and, as if magically, transforms into a sleek and surreally shining grey pot before your eyes.

 

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