Sculpting Diverse Cultural Narratives

WORDS Gina Dionisio PHOTOS Hayden Phipps

Three new solo shows at Southern Guild in Cape Town explore diverse cultural narratives through contemporary ceramic and sculptural art.

Running concurrently until 22 August, 2024, Southern Guild‘s new solo exhibitions offer a distinct yet complementary perspective, showcasing the rich tapestry of contemporary sculptural art.

Adam Birch’s solo show, Like Something Almost Being Said, features hand-sculpted timbre works that reflect a deep connection to the natural world. The ceramic pieces in Madoda Fani’s Madoda: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men challenge and reframe perceptions of Black masculinity in South Africa. King Houndekpinkou’s vibrant ceramics, showcased in Six Prayers, blend West African and Japanese influences, creating a unique dialogue between tradition and modernity.

Adam Birch: Like Something Almost Being Said

Southern Guild Cape Town - Adam Birch

After more than two decades of working as an arborist, Adam Birch’s practice roots itself in an intimate understanding of the language of trees.

The exhibition’s title has been drawn from Philip Larkin’s 1967 poem, ‘The Trees’. The English poet’s composition honours the tree as an allegorical vessel for the cycles of decay and rebirth. Through this lens, Adam’s works become carriers for something budding and full of promise; arising from what was once lifeless, now infused with new vitality in their reimagined, transformed forms. Each of Adam’s artworks has been made through the singular use of a felled tree.

Like Something Almost Being Said features forked seating and large-scale functional forms emerging from a conversation between object and maker. The forks are a significant and recurring shape within Adam’s sculptural vocabulary. These split forms appear at a crucial point in the tree’s structure. Adapted to withstand a lot of pressure and support the weight of the large top branches, the fork contains the hardest wood and the most unpredictable grain. While other arborists ordinarily discard this part of the tree’s form, Adam is captivated by it. Spontaneously led by the tree’s grain, the shape is extracted, and meticulously refined to accommodate one – or multiple–seated bodies.

Adam relinquishes predetermined form, allowing each timber piece to guide him. “It’s about exploring the different shapes the wood can yield – pushing the boundary of what the material can hold,” he shares. “It’s a process of refinement rather than making.”

Adam’s artworks present a paradox: these forms appear simple, straightforward, singular in their material and immediately understood. Yet they’re of a metaphysical quality; they have been changed in essence into something of utility and function, imbued with a reinvigorated purpose that diverges from the essential quest of a tree: to simply be.

Madoda Fani: Madoda: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Southern Guild Cape Town - Madoda Fani

Inheriting its title from the artist’s given name (meaning ‘men’) and the acclaimed work of non-fiction by writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans, this exhibition is a mapping of urban Black masculinities that challenges hetero-normative narratives of the township Black man in South Africa. Re-imagining and re-imaging ubiquitous domestic objects in clay, Madoda Fani‘s work deconstructs reductive and harmful cliches of Black masculinities, re-fashioning them with masterful skill and attention to craft.

Challenging this fixity, Madoda: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a gesture of gratitude for and recognition of the Black men who shaped Madoda. The artist puts this care into his painstakingly and delicately detailed work. Each carved line and indentation is an imprint of love.

Madoda uses the primus stove as a central allegorical object to speak about Black manhood and vulnerability. Known for their durability and efficiency, these quickly become commonplace household items in lower-income communities, solving issues of both space and power. Madoda reconstitutes the object – softer and more fragile in clay than it is in its traditional steel, protected by spikes and scales, its defensive coat of armour.

In Gugulethu, young men and boys gather around these synthetic hearths, forming bonds of community that defy the historical intents of the township space. This body of work recognises how manufactured tropes about the Black man and the township are mobilised through violent stereotyping and the overdetermination of Black identity.

King Houndekpinkou: Six Prayers 

Southern Guild Cape Town - King Houndekpinkou

King Houndekpinkou presents Six Prayers as multi-textural vessels, showcasing the coexisting alchemy of science, pop culture, philosophy, mysticism, and myth.

Known for his distinctive vocabulary of shape, texture and colour, King’s work explores unexpected hybridities, the product of a diasporic worldview that resists cultural borders. He has developed an explorative practice that blends tradition and ancient spirituality with modern techniques, drawing heavily from Japanese and West African culture. 

Produced over eight weeks while participating in the GUILD Residency in Cape Town, Six Prayers fuses several traditions with future possibilities to offer new myths to new gods, complete with their ritualistic objects. Having learned the meditative art of wheel-thrown ceramics under master potter Toshiaki Shibuta in Bizen – one of the six ancient kilns of Japan known as the Roku Koyō – he infuses a deep spiritual intent into his process, creating vessel forms that he then stacks and clusters into sculptural totems.

King’s use of texture is masterful and unexpected. “What really gives life to a piece is its texture. The texture makes the colour come alive. I want to make pieces that look like they’re living, moving, and breathing.” Clay forms are curved into smooth precision, only to be disrupted by shocks of colour, sharp stalks, and crackling glazes. Teasing at biomimicry, spikes borrow their form from the natural world. Like thorns, they protect the vessel, allowing it to hold some of its beauty for itself. 

Like Something Almost Being Said, Madoda: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Six Prayers, are showing at Southern Guild Cape Town until 22 August 2024. |

Looking for more local art? Sign up to our weekly newsletter, here.