OU artist uses natural elements to create massive ceramics  

Doug Hill / For The Transcript

OU graduate student Simphiwe Mbunyuza is a ceramics artist who won the 105th annual School of Fine Arts' Oscar Jacobson award for artistic excellence this year.

One of the strongest impressions Oklahoma has made on Simphiwe Mbunyuza is how cold winter winds can be. And he's told family that the summer sun's intensity rivals that of his home in South Africa.

Mbunyuza is an artist and graduate teaching assistant in the University of Oklahoma's School of Visual Arts' Ceramics Program (Instagram: smbunyuza1989, smbunyuza.ceramics). His personal aesthetic and temperament are attuned to the natural world, so it's no surprise that the Sooner state's climatic extremes are significant.

Mbunyuza is from a village called Emambendeni, near the small town of Butterworth in his country's Eastern Cape Province.

"My work is typically made of clay," Mbunyuza said. "It's inspired by my culture, the Zulu, Ndebele and Xhosa peoples."

As a child, Mbunyuza admired the artistic skills of older boys.

"We would work clay found at the river bank while looking after livestock," he said. "Their skills influenced me to reveal my own."

Mbunyuza's people raise cattle, sheep and goats. The boys would fashion depictions of these animals in clay. His first experiment with firing clay was in an abandoned ant hill.

"It came out OK," he said. "It really worked for me."

Mbunyuza went on to making ceramic art in an academic setting using electric kilns at Walter Sisulu University in Eastern Cape.

His proficiency took him to further studies in France. There, Mbunyuza caught the attention of OU assistant professor Stuart Asprey who encouraged the then 20-something to apply for graduate study admission here. Earlier this year one of his large ceramic pieces won the Oscar Jacobson Award at the 105th annual School of Fine Arts student exhibition.

"That piece was centered on my cultural background story," he said. "I would go to my mother's side of the family home, where I'm a nephew. There they'd give me sour milk that's mainly for the elders."

It was a privilege for the young man to get a rich and creamy treat called amasi, which is fermented milk similar to cottage cheese or yogurt. The concoction is prepared and stored in a calabash gourd, which Mbunyuza's ceramic construct took its inspiration from.

"My grandfather really loved me, so I was treated different from other boys," he said. "So, my art carries this story."

Mbunyuza tends to work on an enormous scale, and his prize-winning piece was no exception. While some ceramicists make delicate tea cups, his works are large and heavy. Impressively-muscled Mbunyuza, in some ways, reflects his creations.

"I like my art because it's who I am," he said. "It defines my peoples' existence, and I just love what I'm doing. I don't have to be forced, pushed or told what to do. I just express myself. It's more like freedom of speech and very easy to do in this form."

Much like his first use of an ant hill, Mbunyuza is still experimenting.

"I'm coming up with new ideas and doing things I've never done before in the context of ceramics," he said. "In terms of shapes and glazes I've never used and working with a wood or gas-fired kiln."

Mbunyuza shared his skills with 20 OU undergraduate students last semester.

"They were good students," he said. "I demonstrated the basics of coiling clay with them, making pieces bigger or taller."

This summer, Mbunyuza is taking advantage of the lull between semesters.

"I have time to focus on my art, because I don't know too many people here," he said. "Working in the studio has boosted my energy, along with drawing and painting at home."

Mbunyuza has been invited to exhibit next year at Art Expo New York.

"I'm doing some new pieces to prepare for it," he said. "I'm thinking of taking as many as seven works. It will be a great opportunity to connect with collectors, galleries and exposure in an environment that embraces art."

Mbunyuza has had a good experience in Oklahoma but insists it's hotter here than in South Africa. Most importantly, people have treated him well, although he misses the African vibe.

"People are quite convivial here," he said.

He's right at home with Oklahoma beef being what's for dinner.

"I like American barbecue," Mbunyuza said with a smile.