STRIKING coral-coloured walls make 47 Lefroy Road stand out from the neighbouring Beaconsfield houses, but it’s the vibrant pottery inside which really sets Zinongo gallery apart.
Fremantle’s longest-running pottery studio and gallery is owned by Njalikwa Chongwe, a master ceramicist of Zambian descent who regularly returns to Africa to check in with artists of his native Ngoni tribe.
Many years of working clay as art and for daily use have created some curious superstitions in Ngoni culture, which Mr Chongwe says affects the entire country.
Zambian craftsmen are not supposed to work until after their child’s first teeth have come through, and believe that you shouldn’t laugh or smile while making pots.
Mr Chongwe holds some of his own superstitions: “If you talk about the shape of the pot while making it, the pot will crack. Don’t let anyone see the pot until it is fired because it will invariably slump.”
Drawing inspiration from traditional potters has helped Mr Chongwe’s art stay fresh and exciting, he says.
“Many people assume that Tonga or Ngoni pottery will all be the same,” says Mr Chongwe. “But artists are fiercely individual within those groups.”
Zambian potters traditionally hand mould clay into coils then stack them in the desired shape, using natural tools to pattern the pots.
Mr Chongwe’s method is more modern — he uses an electric wheel, clay from the eastern states, and hand tools specifically designed for trimming and shaping.
Intending to give some of his tools as gifts on a recent trip to Zambia, Mr Chongwe was surprised to find local potters weren’t interested, having happily depended on simple tools for centuries.
Although the art in Zinongo gallery is not strictly traditional, it remains markedly African; combining bright glazes with earthy browns and using traditional shapes such as the calabash.
Mr Chongwe can turn a lump of clay into a vase in minutes, keeping up a leisurely chat the whole time.
His glazing is also spectacular; Mr Chongwe likes precise, flamboyant stripes which give his pottery a distinctive finish.
A large chunk of Zinongo’s business is composed of hand-crafted wash basins ($300 – $450), with many customers eager to add life to their bathrooms.
The beautiful mugs, bowls, plates, teapots and vases are also popular as gifts.
Zinongo gallery is open on Thursday, Friday and Saturday between 10am and 5pm.
by TRILOKESH CHANMUGAM