For Juliet: Ceramic Sculptor (1950 – 2012)

Apart from memories of her maternally caring nature, her commitment to political justice for all, her inspired teaching and her love of company, good food and good wine, Juliet Armstrong left behind a body of art work which is a hugely important contribution to the visual art legacy of South Africa. This major exploratory exhibition traces the development of Juliet's art work. The accompanying fully illustrated catalogue provides insights into her sources of inspiration, technical achievements, her involvement with community-based ceramists, and positions her within notions of Modernism and Africanness.

Juliet Armstrong, San Shape resting in Mussel Worm Coral, bone china, coral

Juliet Armstrong, San Shape resting in Mussel Worm Coral, bone china, coral


Body I
Press moulded form. Juxtaposed stoneware glazes (Kawai Kaki poured over Alumina Matt). Found stone
h: 240mm l: 820mm w: 349mm
Durban Art Gallery 1974

Breast Bowl with Peg
Bone-china bowl, cast and pierced, with added hippo-ivory peg
h: 70mm w: 142mm d: 132mm
Hart Family

For Mazwi
Bone china (cast form) with supporting bronze elements (cast from Buffalo Thorn sticks)
h: 175mm w: 180mm
Tatham Art Gallery 1613/92

53 Izimpukane obisini (Flies in the Milk)
Bone-china, with black slip. Plastic-coated stainless steel wire & crimps; perspex support
h: 2130mm w: 1830mm (approx)
Ms F. Lund (on loan to the Tatham Art Gallery)

56 Juliet’s Sponge
Bone-china (cast and manipulated); Perspex support
h: 126mm w: 84mm d: 119mm
Mr R Morrell

A South African Carrier shell from the time of the São João
Bone-china, glazed inside, with added found objects (Ming porcelain sherds, trade shells, carnelian beads)
h: 74mm l: 126mm depth: w: 105mm
William Humphreys Art Gallery, Kimberley 4468

For Juliet Opening address; May 2014

As a colleague of Juliet’s for a very long time, one of many who enjoyed her collegiality, artistic advice, and criticism, and as an artist who shared exhibition space with her on a number of occasions, I do feel most privileged to be opening so remarkable an exhibition. Retrospective exhibitions, by definition, look back, assess and celebrate. This one might also look forward, to ways in which artists will derive inspiration from and keep alive the special ethos of the show. Juliet’s legacy, her formative influences and the influences which she was to have on those young artists whose development she guided, her caring interactions with generations of students, her research activity, her trips of discovery to places nearby and exotic, is all extensively documented in the handsome catalogue, so it seems right to talk now chiefly about the content of the exhibition.

[That there is so fine and comprehensive a catalogue, is in large measure due to generous help from the KZN Department of Arts and Culture. Their financial contribution to assembling and presenting the show has been enormous. We are grateful indeed for their support].

The exhibition together with its accompanying catalogue, other documents and artefacts, confirms the role which Juliet played in developing and continuing the long, rich tradition of ceramic production in our part of the world. This is a story of production in KZN which stretches back at least 1000yrs, probably a good deal more, and continues today in the work of highly regarded rural craftspeople, some of whom Juliet helped to propel onto a world stage, and in the vibrant, experimental work of impressive numbers of artists exhibiting ceramic work in the galleries of SA and beyond.

A small work on the exhibition, the 1996 version of Cradle for the San, (placed near the entrance, to the left), seems to me a good point from which to start a discussion on the work. This undemonstrative little piece encapsulates a whole world of inquiry which Juliet undertook. The irregular, stick-like bronze framework which protects the simple oval form, derives, I understand, from an engraving to be found in the Brandberg Mountain range in central Namibia. The engraving was apparently made somewhere between one and two thousand years ago, probably by pastoral people who lived in that area. The perforated form nestling within the frame seems too to have an archaeological origin, this time from sites closer to home in inland KZN. Here then, we find a kind of summary of many of the themes and influences which characterize Juliet’s work; the notion of shelters and sheltering, protecting and embracing , the sense of mystery and ambiguity which our own ancient art forms generate, and the ways in which traditional artistic techniques and contemporary experiments can be happily combined, to produce new answers to the kinds of questions which artists across cultures and times are want to put.

That we are able today to start properly gauging the range of Juliet’s interests, the clarity of her development as an artist and the sheer evocativeness of her work, is of course an outcome of the very nature of a retrospective. In this concentrated format, we have an opportunity to discover paths of continuity and markers of change, which is because retrospective exhibitions typically tend to present large chronological sweeps.

Although the works on exhibition do indeed range over a considerable period of productivity, from 1973 to 2012, it is the thematic continuity, the result of a determined focus on a particular set of principal sources, that emerges most strongly, alongside the progressive maturation in interpretation and in re-presentation of the sources for the work. What emerges is Juliet’s sensitive understanding that the Brandberg engraving and the archaeological cones, and the hides, even the breasts, sometimes contain in themselves sufficient aesthetic value to require little manipulation.

The suggestion of a focussed range of reference points may seem a little paradoxical, given Juliet’s exceptional breadth of interests, a span which extends from the utilitarian vessels of local craftspeople to traditional potters of SE Asia, from simple proto-historic food containers to the excesses of Victorian teapot decoration, but a close consideration of the work reveals the underlying integrity of her vision and the logic to her conceptual growth. (Lest this sound just too methodical, one does remember the sometimes frantic studio process, with, I suspect, works on occasion being delivered to the gallery still warm).

A late work, probably one of the last sizeable pieces Juliet completed, is telling with regard to this conceptual depth. Bream Dream, (on the right wall), contains an abundance of ideas, brought together into a superbly integrated whole. One of its several conceptual strands confirms Juliet’s long-held interest in those kinds of sculpture which comprise multiple, or distinctly contrasting, component parts. (We see this too in Izimpukane obisini and in several of the memorial pieces, such as For Mazwi and For Dick). Another of the strands underscores her predilection for sheets of an unadulterated, usually light, tone, which become punctuated by small, sharp accents. A further strand is evident in the way in which the surfaces of her source materials fascinate her, most particularly where these become membranes which refer to the historic, symbolic, patterns of skin. Perhaps above all, it is the sense of ritual associated with her sources that is present in Bream dream as in so many of the pieces.

Bream dream has to do with everyday rituals and exchanges. It gestures on both a grand and a domestic scale to the idea of the meal, of gathering food, of the rewards of communal activity and reminds us of the timelessness and universality of these exchanges. This apparently ordered, near symmetrical work is in reality restless with multiple associations in which meaning is compounded through its references to ceramic tradition and its cutting edge contemporaneity. It seems to slip through that separation between the actual object and its sculptural derivation.

Formally, Izimpukane obisini is not dissimilar, although here the rituals are more specific, relating as they do to the symbolic force accorded the skin or hide in many traditional cultures. This enormous work, a seminal one in the way in which it consolidates ideas explored by Juliet in several earlier works, comprises around 600 bone china planes held in place by steel wire connectors in a manner which contributes to the sensation of a flickering light darting across an otherwise austere surface. The surface is yet further activated by the dramatic splatters of dark slip, underlining her “incorruptible sense of tone”, a phrase used in relation to another artist, as it happens, a painter. Precursors to Izimpukane obisini and Bream dream include the near life-size ingcayi and isibhodiya series, also derived from animal skins and which refer to the ceremonial protective aprons which Juliet had encountered and collected in her studies in the field. This group of works in particular alerts one to an especially intriguing aspect of Juliet’s work -- the bond between the source for the work and the final sculpture.

What might be the clues which explain this interdependence between the object found and the object imagined?

Juliet’s sensitivity to tradition – particularly ceramic tradition – is ever evident. There is, for example, that cluster of works which derive from her experiences on archaeological visits, the small wedge-like pieces also placed to the left of the entrance. The source objects for these have a largely unknown function, possibly tool-related, possibly spiritual and relate tantalizingly to the breast and near-breast forms which Juliet made in considerable numbers between approximately 1977 and the early 1980s. Other works seem to take their cue from historically relatively more recent vessels, dug up on expeditions into the hinterland. These ancient vessels, though essentially functional, are nonetheless elegantly crafted with a control and simplicity so apparent too in Juliet’s work. The very nature of craftsmanship is under investigation here -- its historic importance and its more contemporary status which challenges unwanted categorizations in the arts, such as simplistic hierarchic distinctions between fine art, design, craft, material culture and the like. Juliet’s work emphatically dissolves these kinds of boundaries and blurs understandings of where ceramics, sculpture, even pictorial expression might begin and end. Notable too is the way in which her acknowledgement of the ways and forms of rural and traditional craftspeople helps deny the sometimes pejorative tone in the discourse on customary forms of expression.

Juliet’s work is rooted in close observation of and a real feeling for her sources, including the techniques used in their making. What she then adds to this blend is the exercise of an imaginative and interpretative ability of great refinement. Some works derive quite directly from the observed source; the breast pieces, the hides and their hooves, the earthy Shelters series, for example . Others, however, owe more to the application of artistic imagination to the object first observed. Either way, a new set of ideas and meanings is generated by the eventual products. These ideas are not fixed in the works, to be teased out by the viewer, for Juliet establishes an on-going dialogue with her spectators -- and it is a dialogue of equals, for we seem to become collaborators with the artist in bringing our experience of this process of recollection and reflection, and equally imaginatively creating for ourselves the new narratives which these works demand.

One of the ways in which our engagement is captured, is through experience which may perhaps best be termed bodily. Our physical experience of the works becomes a part of our comprehension of them. The functional ceramics which Juliet repeatedly refers to, will historically have involved a physical activity. Her sources, including the ubiquitous vessels and the memories of these vessels in the cones and the breasts, the hides , the urns, the membranes, have had earlier lives which involved the body in some degree, and prompt memories of the rituals, domestic and devotional, attached to them.

The sources and stimuli which Juliet sought out, treasured and measured for their potential usefulness, substantiate the artistic approaches to which she seemed to be drawn, such as aspects of Modernism, and an Anglo-Oriental studio ceramic tradition. They stand too for the aesthetic values to which she subscribed, such as an understated organic coherence in artmaking generally. The specific sources are recognisably from our world and so pointers to their original contexts provide us with opportunities to arrive at our own explanations as to their meaning. And we enter through these works, that tricky territory between the artist’s representation of the world and a relocation in relation to that world, such that the value of the work lies in its achieving a delicate balance between recognisability of and departure from the work’s starting point. Consider, for example, that several derive from actual skins, and body parts, platters, vessels and vases. Many of Juliet’s sculptures are around life size. They challenge that divide between the real thing and its imaginative offspring. While they are not, clearly, the actual thing, they are not replicas. There is a pronounced shift in materiality from the original object. She at once reassuringly confirms our recognition of the subject yet complicates our understanding of it as an interpretation, a codification in a whole new language. This language she uses draws on a fusion of concrete experiences and creative invention. The artworks, while revealing their influences and proposing associations for us, reach that elusive moment of independence from the source while still being suggestive of it – a point of transition which is really quite classical in its sense of balance. There are undertones of another order here; works are comfortably familiar, but tantalizingly non-prescriptive. This is not to say that Juliet’s sculpture is resistant to interpretation, for the thematic consistency of her work is such that it offers a secure range of interpretative options, speaking to us of our shared and accumulated knowledge, most fittingly, of our shared African experience. We feel safe too in interpreting the meaning intrinsic to the materials she uses, for clay, and bronze and wood and stone are the universal art materials, as old in their usage as humankind’s first artistic gestures. The materials preserve the timelessness of the work. But the materials on their own will not determine the messages, for as we have seen meaning in Juliet’s work resists being anchored – Juliet’s approach requires some work on the part of the spectator too.

Finally, in another way does her work seem to me classically inclined. The cradling, or sheltering and nurturing imagery, underscores the intimacy, the closeness of it all, yet, and surprisingly given the fairly small scale of much of the work, there is also a feeling for the monumental and universal. In keeping with an accomplished and confident spirit, that point of tension between stability and movement, austerity and abundance, the personal and the general, is exquisitely maintained.

In the way of the truly classical, we see in the exhibition an equilibrium between the minor gesture and the grand, the demonstrative and the reserved. Technical innovation is founded on technical expertise, expanses of white are brought to life by barely discernable moments of pure colour, moments which have a sort of leveraging effect, influencing our perception of the whole through their small but significant presences. And yes, in the way of orthodox Modernism, in much of the work is there an expressive tautness lurking beneath a calm presence. But there are finally too many elusive qualities for the work to be pinned to any orthodoxy. That these sculptures will always be full of surprises, difficult to catch, is thanks to a brilliant eccentricity.

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