ARTicle 15 October 2002

Introduction to the Buying and Selling of Traditional Southern African Art

by Professor Kyle D. Kauffman (Wellesley College and Harvard University) 
and Frederik de Jager (

Traditional African art has long been a source of intense interest among art historians, collectors, and dealers. In addition, it is well known that major twentieth century artists such as Picasso gained inspiration from West African works of art. Renowned South African artist  Irma Stern was also inspired by Central African works of art. However, what has received less attention is the creative and rich traditional artwork of the peoples of Southern African (such as the Zulu, Ndebele, Swazi, Shona, Xhosa, and others). Increasingly, however, the works of these groups have gained the attention of museums, art collectors, and galleries around the world. Indeed, works by traditional Zulu artists have fetched high prices of late at Sothebys-New York as well as at major commercial galleries in New York, London, and Paris.

While the media of the work of the Southern African people is somewhat similar to that of the better known West Africans (wood, clay, beads, etc.), the outcome is substantially different. West African traditional artwork tended to be more figurative, while Southern African pieces tended more towards the utilitarian and less figurative.

One other difference of note for the collector is that the size of many West African peoples (such as the Yoruba, Ibo, Dogon, and Ashanti) is vastly different from that of the Southern African peoples. Just as today, the populations of West Africa were much larger than that of Southern Africa (Maddison 2001). Therefore because fewer people in Southern Africa were producing works of art, compared to West Africa, there is much less Southern African traditional art on the market. Thus, the substantially smaller supply, and hence greater scarcity, of objects created in the South should eventually lead to higher prices of such pieces compared to works from West Africa.

While in this short introduction it is impossible to cover all of the different types of creative work produced by all of the original people of Southern Africa, we will highlight many of the major types. In the interest of brevity, we will focus mainly on utilitarian works created by the Zulu (the major producers of artwork among Southern African peoples). In later articles we will focus more on non-utilitarian objects (such as beadwork) as well as on the non-Zulu peoples.

Meat Platters (Izingqoko) were carved from a single piece of wood and ranged from very small (around 20cm) to extremely large (up to 1 meter). These four legged platters were commonly carved on the underside in various designs, most commonly with amasumpa (raised "warts" or bumps). Of all of the traditional wooden objects collected from the field, meat platters tend to have the richest patina. This comes from the fat and other cooking ingredients which collect on the objects.
Milk pails (Amatunga) were carved from a single piece of wood generally Marula, Fig, or Red Ebony (for Royals). These vase-like vessels were also often elaborately carved with amasumpa and other designs, often for easier handling when placed between the knees of the person milking the cow or goat. Milk pails are sloped at the bottom, some severely so, to make them stand upright when pushed into the kraal floor. When not in use, milk pails are stored upside down, usually on a post.
Spoons and Ladles (Izinkhezo & Izixwembe) were often quite personal wooden objects carved for particular individuals. They too were often elaborately and finely carved. Different types of spoons were used for different tasks. For instance, flat ended ladles were used for stirring and serving, longer ladles for deep bowls, and others for decanting stews and soups. The father of a new bride will give a set of new utensils to show that she can join the communal food source. Spoons are stored in grass pouches and not left standing or lying about. Both ends of the spoon have utility: the bowl end is used for serving or eating and the sharp end for poking dogs and other intruders at who try to get too close to the dinner proceedings.

Walking Sticks
were one of the few objects, usually produced for high ranking individuals, which might have a face or figure carved at the top. These figures are most likely influenced from the Nguni people who tended to be more figurative in their carvings. These pieces also tended to highlight a carver's talents and are thus highly collectable.
Headrests (Izigqiki) which are carved from a single piece of wood (or in extremely rare cases stone) serve a spiritual and also a functional need. On the spiritual side they represent a symbolic link between the living and the deceased, past and future and are given by women to their husbands upon marriage. On the functional side they serve to protect the elaborate hair decorations from being crushed and also from dirt and insects. There is also a strong level of status associated with headrests. Those that were beautifully and finely carved were highly prized then, as they are now. There are strong differences between the styles of headrests. For instance, between the neighbouring Zulu and Swazi people there are strong and clearly identifiable differences. Swazi headrests (as illustrated above) invariably consist of two fluted legs with a cross bar. There is also a "lug" midway between the legs on the underside. The legs tend to be pleated representing the woman's skirt.

Zulu headrests on the other hand come in many forms ranging from a solid block to ten or twelve legs. The designs are also highly varied and include amasumpa, shields, cross-hatch, among many others.

Beer pots (Izinkhamba) and water pots (izimpiso) can be made of clay (and in some cases basketry). Clay pots are coiled by women, burnished to a high gloss with a black or dark brown finish and fired at low temperatures in grass and cow dung fires. Pots come in a multitude of sizes and designs. Amasumpa is common on beer pots along with "inverted amasumpa" (indentations) and scratching designs (sgrafitto). The larger pots are generally used for storage and preparation. The smaller pots are used for serving. 
Snuff containers (Amashungu) are highly individual, reflecting the personal preferences of the individual and his status. They are worn in a prominent position like the neck, belt, arm, head ring, earlobe, or walking stick. The ritual of snuff-taking precedes spiritual or social interaction, with a senior member first as an introductory ritual to clear the mind. Snuff attracts the spirits and sneezing is seen as proof of their presence. Snuff containers are made from a variety of materials including wood, ivory, bone, horn, seed pods, reeds, calabash, cartridge cases, metal, or glass. They are often decorated with carvings, beadwork, wirework, or branding.
Mat holders are narrow wooden constructions with slots for holding rolled grass mats. These tended to range from 50 to 80 cm in height. While all of the mat holders had two tall standing pieces, some also had matching pieces at the top and bottom to sturdy the side pieces. Mat holders were often quite elaborately decorated, which was unusual for Zulu wooden objects. Clothing, beadwork, and earplugs were often quite decorative, but mat holders were one of the few utilitarian objects to be so highly and colourfully decorated.
These works comprise most of the utilitarian Zulu (and related peoples) objects we see on the market. The prices of these objects vary considerably. Older works, especially those with a credible provenance fetch very high prices. However, as with all traditional African works of art, one must be acutely aware of fakes. With wooden objects it is important to look carefully at the patina and wear of the objects, especially if there is no known provenance.

The value of traditional Zulu art is increasing noticeably not only in South Africa, but also in Europe and America. This has everything to do with the demand and supply of these objects. As with all works of art coming out of South Africa, the demand in the past ten years has increased markedly. With the fall of Apartheid and the ensuing democratic dispensation, there is a newly found interest in all things South African. Therefore, there is a greatly increased demand. This is coupled with the fact that there were many fewer objects created in Southern African compared to, say, Nigeria. Therefore, the supply is very low. These two factors taken together are resulting in rapidly increasing values for traditional Southern African works of art.

Maddison, Angus (2001) The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective Paris: OECD.

Zaloumis, Alex (2000) Zulu Tribal Art, Amazulu Publishers : Cape Town

Johannesburg Art Gallery (1991) Art and Ambiguity, The Penrose Press

Kyle D. Kauffman; Vgallery, 2002
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