Sandile Brian Cele cuts a striking figure everywhere he goes: his all-black outfit is accessorized with small earlobe plugs, studded leather bracers, shell bracelets, and a handful of silver rings. His long hair is meticulously dressed in thin locs and tied back. It’s an Afropunk look that is as memorable as his ceramic art.

Cele is the artist in residence at Collaborate CT, a gallery, café, and cooperative located in Fish Hoek, South Africa, (near Cape Town) and operated by Gavin Webb and Conway Lotter. In the small studio attached to the main space, Cele creates his Zulu Goth line, which ranges from tableware to sculptural forms. Through his practice, he is reclaiming his Zulu heritage.

1 Sandile Brian Cele handbuilding a container in his studio. 2 Plates and platters by Cele that demonstrate his many interpretations of iziqhaza earplug designs.

Cele was raised by his grandparents in Umlazi Township, in KwaZulu-Natal. His grandfather, a theology lecturer and senior pastor, ran a church there with his wife. While neighboring families would perform traditional Zulu rituals and use calabashes (beer pots called ukhamba), his deeply Christian family did not. Young Cele found the round shape, black finish, and raised patterns of ukhamba appealing, and would ask for one. To no avail: in his family, owning a beer pot was taboo. “This bothered me,” he explains, “because calabashes are such beautiful pots, you know, and they represent our Zulu identity. But when you’re young and don’t want to be a black sheep, you go along.” 

During holidays and celebrations, Zulu villagers would come from the countryside. The village men would tell the township children about cattle and teach them how to fashion cows from clay. For 7-year-old Cele, this was a revelation. He made a little clay cow and was hooked. “I kept on making cows, making cows, making cows. After a while, even my crew of friends didn’t find this particularly interesting,” he laughs.  

3 Black Calabash Sculpture. Seated on a classic calabash form, this Zulu Goth piece adds a flying buttress decorated with an iziqhaza earplug design and rows of square studs. 4 Another platter inspired by iziqhaza designs.

Do What You Know

There are no cows in Umlazi Township; the only time he would see some would be before a wedding or another social event, when cattle would be trucked in and slaughtered for an upcoming feast. “I remember thinking that I didn’t know anything about cows,” he says. “I had to make something that I saw every day. I saw cars, cars, cars everywhere.” He began carving automobiles out of clay, which would quickly crumble during play. 

One day in class, a teacher gave a lesson on how calabashes were made and fired. Young Cele immediately grasped that heat would harden his clay cars. He had options: build a fire, which would quickly land him in hot water, or use his grandma’s oven. He watched how she used her oven. One night, when everyone went to bed, he pretended to be busy with homework and slipped a clay car in the oven. As he waited, he noticed how the color of the clay was changing. The little car cracked, but 10-year-old Cele had absorbed the lesson that clay needs to be heated to become strong.  

5 Zulu Goth Ceremonial Vase, which won an award last year, exemplifies Cele’s interest in combining the Zulu tradition of burning fragrant impepho to propriate and commune with one’s ancestors with novel forms that he pulls from classic European Gothic architecture. 6 Double-walled studded-lip bowl with a geometric iziqhaza design.

His love for clay never waned and, after high school, he enrolled in Fine Arts at Natal Technikon,1 majoring in ceramics under the mentorship of Hennie Stroebel in 2002. A few years later, he moved to Mpumalanga Township to work with ART AID, helping emerging artists hone both their professional skills and their craft. He also worked as a consultant with the Cape Craft & Design Institute and other South African art organizations to promote Black South African artists.

Going Pro

In 2005, Cele met noted South African ceramic artist Clementina van der Walt, who hired him as a studio assistant. This is where he refined his skills and made his own work during off hours. In 2016, after steady encouragement from the likes of Andile Dyalvane and John Bauer, two well-known South African potters, Cele made the leap and started SBC Design Studio.

7 A collection of small Zulu Goth vases, with rounded calabash bases topped with a variety of collars, and matching teapot. Their colors and patterns draw directly from iziqhaza designs.

His first works were inspired directly by the colorful geometric patterns of iziqhaza, which are earlobe disks that were traditionally worn by Zulu men and women when they came of age. The different patterns on the disks would convey the status and age of their wearers. In 2019, he expanded his style through his Zulu Goth line.

This growing creativity has been noticed. In November 2021, his Zulu Goth Ceremonial Vase was the inaugural recipient of the CSA Western Cape Regional’s Zizipho Poswa Prize for African Cultural Preservation. The piece is directly inspired by the South African traditional ritual of burning impepho (Helichrysum odoratissimum) to cleanse a space and invoke the goodwill of one’s ancestors. 

Thirty-something Cele says that it took him a day to get over the surprise. “It’s such an honor that my efforts to walk this line between tradition and futurism were recognized like this,” he adds. “It has also strengthened my resolve to promote African art.” His ceremonial vase is a perfect example of his Zulu Goth style, which combines the tight rows of raised bumps and black surface of traditional Zulu pots with complex forms inspired by his interpretation of European Gothic architecture. Cele also likes adding hits of saturated color, which might be something he absorbed while painting Clementina van der Walt’s brightly colored wares. 

8 A superb example of Cele’s Zulu Goth style, this black and red sculpture features incised patterns and studs. The calabash shape is paired with a soaring asymmetrical top, and the two are connected with a spiked collar—a sly nod to punk fashion.

When asked about his Gothic and punk influences, he explains that he likes the eye-catching look. “I get questions on social media. Some people associate ‘Gothic’ with the Devil,” he says. “But my art is not about the supernatural, it’s about Zulu tradition mixed with Gothic architecture, it’s about layering things that are scorned by some and celebrated by others.”

In the Studio

  • Slab roller

  • Banding wheel

  • Slump and sprig bisque molds

  • Dark-bodied clays from Cape Pottery Supplies

  • Clay Bright underglazes and clear glaze from Cape Pottery Supplies

  • Front-loading electric kiln (bisque: 1832°F (1000°C); glaze fire: 2084–2210°F (1140–1210°C))

A Continuing Evolution

Even now, Cele sees his work taking a new direction, one that will be less colorful and draw more heavily from architectural design. While he has not yet exhausted the Zulu Goth style, he’s allowing his art to evolve. His personal style is changing alongside it: he recently removed his signature leather bracers and got tattoos that connect to his interest in ritualized body modification and scarification.

Cele has had some recent shows, notably one in September 2022, where he was featured with the other 2021 CSA Western Cape Regional winners in the Rust-en-Vrede gallery’s The Cube display. He also participates in the big biannual potters markets in the Cape Town region, including the Potters Market in Rondebosch, which is held in March and November. 

9 Black platter with iziqhaza design. 10 A pair of vintage iziqhaza or traditional Zulu earplugs. Cele draws from their designs, even incorporating the tiny nails used to attach the designs to the wood roundel below.

Cele hopes to eventually move into a bigger studio where he could teach township youths and promote local artists. “Art school is inaccessible to many talented young people,” he says. “My plan is to train small groups. I want to help them learn the craft and go on to earn a living.” When asked about the message in his work, he explains, “I am trying to convey that I am a son of the soil. I was born in Africa. I embrace my Zulu culture. I embrace my ancestors. I embrace those who came before me and paved the way.” 

He concludes by sharing that his art “is about being grateful for who you are and where you come from, regardless of how others judge your culture. Whoever you are, wherever you are from, you are beautiful.”

11 Sandile Brian Cele standing in his studio in front of a collection of cups and mugs.

A Day in the Life

The day starts with breakfast on his apartment balcony, where he has a spectacular view of the mountains and both the Atlantic and Indian oceans. He can quietly watch eagles soaring as the clouds scud by. When he’s not painting in his home studio in Fish Hoek, he heads down to the pottery studio. The day might involve giving a workshop, working on his pottery, or meeting people visiting Collaborate CT. 

Because he is a handbuilder making highly detailed pieces, he may produce only five cups in a day. “Just painting, scraping, starting again until I’m happy. And tomorrow, I’ll do another five. It’s labor intensive, but we do what we do for love,” he laughs. Later, he will walk back up to his apartment, or sit down with friends for a chat about art and life over coffee—or a even a beer.

Sandile Brian Cele’s work can be found in South Africa at the following venues: Collaborate CT, Fish Hoek; Southern Guild Gallery, Cape Town; and The Potter’s Shop, Kalk Bay. His work is also represented abroad at Monkey Apple in the UK; Mahatsara in France; and SunBeam in Japan.

the author Lysanne Larose is an emerging ceramic artist from Montréal/Tiohtià:ke, Québec, Canada. She splits her practice between colorful tableware and meditative sculptures inspired by geology and climate change.

1 Technikons were post-secondary technology institutes (polytechs) in South Africa that focused on career-oriented vocational training. They were merged or restructured as universities in the early 2000s.