A window into contemporary glass in Southern Africa
South African glass artists and educators marked the United Nations’ International Year of Glass through a series of exhibitions and symposia throughout 2022. These events showcased the history and current status of glass practice in the country. Here the organising committee detail how they put glass at the forefront during this exciting year.
A lot of work and energy flowed into making glass more visible around the globe during the United Nations’ International Year of Glass in 2022, and Southern Africa was no exception!
Although glass heritage is not as prominent in Southern Africa, compared to Europe and the US, hundreds of hours were invested to showcase contemporary glass through the year. Artists, industry and academia came together, with the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) taking centre stage. This institution sits at the apex of the Southern African creative glass industry and is where the past, present and future converge. It is the only tertiary institution in sub-Saharan Africa offering training in glass as a creative medium.
Several exhibitions were held in South Africa to promote our diverse glass practices. Of these the group exhibition ‘Fired Up! – Celebrating Southern African Glass Art’, was the most significant. It was held at the Pretoria Art Museum and curated by glass artist Lothar Böttcher.
The Fired Up! exhibition wove a thread from the beginning of glassmaking in the Southern African region through to present day practices by renowned contemporary glass artists. WITS University Origins Centre highlighted the early history of glass in Southern Africa, revealing how glass beads produced in the first furnaces on the tip of Africa were used as currency in continental trade routes. Some of the beads exhibited included the original moulds used during manufacture, excavated from the ancient Iron Age city of Mapungubwe.
Fired Up! Also chronicled the stories of pioneers and torchbearers in the hand-made glass industry of Southern Africa. Top contemporary glass artists exhibiting were: Fanus Boshoff, Lothar Böttcher, Anslem Croze (Kitengela Glass, Kenya), Barbara Ewing, Caitlin Greenberg, Martli Jansen van Rensburg, James Magagula (Ngwenya Glass, Eswatini), Ryan Manuel, Sue Meyer, Sibusiso Mhlanga (Ngwenya Glass, Eswatini), Stephen Mofokeng, Kgotso Pati, David Reade, Nicole Rowe, Guido van Besouw, and Retief van Wyk.
The full, 68-page Fired Up! catalogue can be viewed here.
In addition, Fired Up! hosted a Glass Symposium at TUT, with invited guest lecturers discussing topics including archaeology and ancient trade routes, industrial glass manufacture, glass in African architecture, plus sustainable glass and the circular economy. The full presentation video can be viewed here: Fired Up! Glass Symposium
The ‘Next Generation’ exhibition, held at the Viewing Room Art Gallery, Pretoria, South Africa, consisted of glass works by students, lecturers and alumni from TUT’s Faculty of Arts and Design. Curated by Martli Jansen van Rensburg and Caitlin Greenberg, it brought the work of many diverse artists together in an exceptional show. This allowed students to exhibit alongside established names, affording a broad spectrum of glass makers an opportunity to mingle and exchange ideas. Students had the opportunity to sell their works to collectors, thus encouraging their passion towards glass as a medium and strengthening their trajectory in the glass-art industry.
The TUT Faculty Arts and Design, department of Fine and Studio Arts’ glass studio affords students the opportunity to learn about glass through a variety of techniques; it has a furnace and hot shop, several kilns for warm glass, fusing and casting glass, flame work, and a comprehensive cold shop.
Glass became an official elective subject within the former Pretoria Tecknikon, Fine and Applied Art diploma in 1996 through the efforts of Ian Redelinghuys (head of the Fine Art Department) and Retief van Wyk (lecturer). This was made possible with the help of Wolverhampton University and glass artist, David Reade. David Reade trained under Michael Harris on the Isle of Wight in the UK in the 1970s, moving to South Africa in 1984. The glass studio has been run by former alumna, Caitlin Greenberg, since 2019.
Several smaller events took place in the International Year of Glass, too. For example, Lothar Böttcher’s solo exhibition, ‘Precious Beasts’, opened at Ebony Curated in Franschhoek, Western Cape. Years of dedication as a cold worker and protagonist for glass as a medium of art culminated in this exquisite collection of carved, cut and polished figurines and sculptures.
Martli Jansen van Rensburg’s solo exhibition ‘Ruach’ at Terra Contemporary, Pretoria explored her personal journey as an artist, touching on themes of memories and loss. Read more about this exhibition here.
In addition, the Melrose House Museum in Pretoria exhibited its magnificent collection of Victorian glass, offering a window into colonial influences on South African culture.
The future of glass in Southern Africa
Thanks to the events held during the year of glass, a solid foundation has been laid. Artists, and an interested public, were able to explore the possibilities of glass. New networks were established, especially between TUT and Ngwenya Glass. Master blowers Sibusiso Mhlanga and James Magagula shared their knowledge with the students and offered collaborative workshops with other artists.
These ground-breaking events have the potential to foster a new generation of glassmakers and glass lovers. Artists saw the potential of joining hands, to strengthen interdisciplinary networks, share skills and knowledge.
In our current tumultuous world, the business of glass as an art, and creative endeavour, are experiencing difficult times. The foundation built during the International Year of Glass and the energy of those events must be channelled to support an environment where glass can flourish as an equitable and sustainable expression of our times.
Fired Up! and its associated events were made possible through funding from the International Year of Glass as well as the unwavering support and work of the Fired Up! committee, consisting of Lothar Böttcher (artist and curator), Chas Prettejohn (Ngwenya Glass, Eswatini), Caitlin Greenberg (TUT Glass Department) and Martli Jansen van Rensburg (artist).
Main image: ‘Orange Bloom “Evolved”‘ by Ryan Manuel.