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Vessel for Serving Beer (Ukhamba)

A work made of blackened terracotta.

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  • A work made of blackened terracotta.


Mid–20th century


KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
Eastern and Southern Africa

About this artwork

Among the Zulu, potter is a specialized art form practiced by skilled women wo make wares for family use and for sale. Archaeology has revealed ceramic traditions in the region that date to the first century B.C., and Nguni-speaking ancestors of the Zulu are believed to have begun making pottery in the early second millennium A.D. Not surprisingly given its historic importance, pottery has symbolic dimensions that are expressed both covertly and overtly in Zulu culture. According to Zulu mythology, for example, the earth—which is both the resting place of the ancestors and the provider of nourishment for the living—is perceived as feminine. The earth also supplies the clay that women use to make pots. Vessels are made for a variety of domestic needs, including the preparation and serving of food and drink, and many of these purposes have important ritual dimensions. Supreme among them is the brewing and serving of beer.

Sorghum beer, called utshwala, has been produced in the Zulu region for at least as long as potter has. It is considered the food of the ancestors, who are drawn to its smell from first brewing to full flower. For this reason, numerous rules and prohibitions guide its making, storing, serving, and drinking. The beverage’s popularity increased in the nineteenth century as crops became more plentiful, and its significance as a social lubricant that could promote solidarity within a community also expanded. Today, homemade beer made from sorghum and other grains continues to be an essential part of Zulu ritual and social life, and ceramic pots have remained the favored container.

Zulu potters use a variety of patterns to ornament beer vessels, the textures of which stand in strong contrast to the pots’ highly burnished surfaces. This pot illustrates a widespread decorative technique in which small semicircular indentations are pressed into the clay in tight rows that define a geometric shape or band. Here the marks are crisply executed and inscribe two large triangles extending point-to-point at an angle across the body of the vessel.


Currently Off View


Arts of Africa


Northern Nguni


Vessel for Serving Beer (Ukhamba)


South Africa (Object made in)

Date  Dates are not always precisely known, but the Art Institute strives to present this information as consistently and legibly as possible. Dates may be represented as a range that spans decades, centuries, dynasties, or periods and may include qualifiers such as c. (circa) or BCE.

Made 1925–1975


Blackened terracotta


21.6 × 26.7 cm (8 1/2 × 10 1/2 in.)

Credit Line

Gift of Keith Achepohl

Reference Number


Extended information about this artwork

Object information is a work in progress and may be updated as new research findings emerge. To help improve this record, please email . Information about image downloads and licensing is available here.


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