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The iThongo exhibition on show at Southern Guild

Andile Dyalvane draws on Xhosa heritage for iThongo seating collection

South African artist Andile Dyalvane's sculptural iThongo seating collection was crafted from hand-coiled clay and informed by significant words in the Xhosa language.

The ceramic designer's collection consists of 18 stools and chairs with each piece representing one of over 200 symbols that Dyalvane has created.

Each symbol stands for an important word in the language spoken by the Xhosa people in South Africa's Eastern Cape, where the artist was born.

iThongo exhibition at Southern Guild
Top: Andile Dyalvane's exhibition is on show at Southern Guild. Above: the collection consists of 18 seats

The name of the collection means ancestral dreamscape, and the chairs symbolise words including entshonalanga (sunset), igubu (drum), umalusi (herdsman) and izilo (totem animals).

"In many ways, all my works are interwoven in sketchbook incubation," Dyalvane told Dezeen.

"All speak of transitional periods throughout my growth, both literal and spiritual. My works acknowledge and celebrate my ancestral lineage, heritage and community that raised me."

"The symbols themselves began coming through to me a few years back as messages from my ancestors through the ancestral dreamtime landscape which we call iThongo."

iThongo clay chair
Each chair embodies a symbol

The iThongo ceramic seats are all made from hand-coiled clay. They sit low to the ground, evoking traditional seats that were designed to sit close to the earth, which was revered as a portal for ancestral communion.

Dyalvane sculpted the seats, which are on show at the Southern Guild in Cape Town, to be a tangible representation of different ancestral words.

"One may seemingly step forward for me at times – for example, uYalezo (messages) as the portal, gateway or entrance to iThongo," Dyalvane said.

"The shape of this symbol looks like the entrance to one's oesophagus, with the uvula hanging from the top. An instruction has been to vocalise messages received through the tools and symbols gifted to me in my work."

The uYalezo chair by Andile Dyalvane

The uYalezo symbol resembles the entrance to the oesophagus

The terracotta clay seats have generous, rounded bases and decorative backrests that can measure almost a metre in height. These feature sinuous, undulating shapes, as well as the faces of animals, horns and geometric backrests.

The shapes are a nod to enclosures for livestock and traditional buildings forms, as well as circular geometry, which plays a role in Xhosa spiritual practices.

Clay chair
Circular geometry has a spiritual connection

Dyalvane explains that the symbols that the chairs are based on can come to him at any time so he always carries a notebook to jot them down in.

"Symbols appear to me much like choices do, nearly all the time – in my sleep and my dreams, via guides in conversation, during aligned collaborative discussions, when listening to music, and touching the clay in studio," he said.

As well as being sculpted into chairs, the symbols themselves are also carved into the seats, creating decorative reliefs and patterns.

Andile Dyalvane's iThongo collection centred around the hearth
The seating is centred traditionally around a hearth

iThongo is exhibited in the tradition of Xhosa ceremonial gatherings – in a circle around a fire hearth. It was first shown at Ngobozana, Dyalvane's homestead, to his family and the extended community before travelling on to the gallery.

"The exhibition iThongo is presented in a time where remembering deeply is of utmost importance to building a unified resilience of spirit, and this is how it was received when we took it there," Dyalvane said of showing the collection in Ngobozana.

"Communally unified in our greatness as people, in our respectful practice of gratitude – iCamagu – for all who have gone before and those dreamed into this world."

Chairs by Andile Dyalvane
Dyalvane has designed around 200 symbols to represent Xhosa words

The artist previously created traditional beer drinking vessels, called ingqayi, which he says set him on the path to creating this latest collection.

"I took one back home to give my father, who has since passed away, and he called in all the village elders and family to announce that I have arrived with spiritual duty assigned to my name and purpose: to help people remember their greatness," Dyalvane explained.

Andile Dyalvane's clay chairs
Horns decorate the backrests of some of the seats

Traditions continue to play a big role in Dyalvane's understanding of how to stay grounded and balanced.

"We are constantly energising both the past and future through our present actions," he said. "To believe that keys of trust in one’s value, purpose and time exists in all – past, present and future – helps us to engage with great ways of understanding our spirits in these spaces."

Photography is by Adriaan Louw for Southern Guild.

iThongo is on show at the Southern Guild until 25 February 2021 and at Friedman Benda, New York, from 29 April - 22 May 2021. See Dezeen Events Guide for an up-to-date list of architecture and design events taking place around the world.

More images

Horned red terracotta chair
Brown clay chair
Stool in red and brown clay
Bulls horn seat
iThongo clay chair
Bench by Andile Dyalvane