UKZN’s Centre for Visual Art (CVA) recently paid tribute to the late art Professor, Juliet Armstrong, by staging an art exhibition at the Jack Heath Gallery titled: For Juliet. 

The exhibition featured an eclectic collection of art by current and past UKZN staff and students who were all touched by Armstrong in some way.  Each artist included a short statement about the art work and its symbolism, explaining how it resonated with Armstrong and her life.

Armstrong, who died in August following a serious illness, was a world-renowned ceramicist well known for her work in bone china.  For many years she was the only artist in South Africa working in this medium.  Examples of her work, for which she won numerous national awards, are on permanent exhibition in many prominent galleries around the country. 

A passion for empowering the women of South Africa, Armstrong, along with fellow academic, Professor Ian Calder, was instrumental in setting up a community engagement programme that has benefited women who create ceramic pots in the kwaMagwaza village, near Kranskop in KwaZulu-Natal.   Armstrong established contact with galleries around South Africa and abroad for this Zulu pottery to be displayed and traded. 

At the opening of the exhibition, Professor Anton van der Hoven spoke fondly of Armstrong whom he described as being many things to many people ranging from wife, lover and mother to colleague, teacher and mentor.  He said she was “nothing less than a force of nature” who touched the lives of all who came into contact with her. 

Former UKZN student and staff member, Mr Vulindledla Nyoni, explained how Armstrong was one of the first people to take him in and care for his well-being when he arrived as a student in Pietermaritzburg.  ‘I believe her interactions with me, the lessons I learnt, the fondness and respect for learning, inspired me to be the teacher I am today,’ he said. 

Current UKZN Lecturer, Mrs Faye Spencer, described Armstrong as ‘a friend and mentor - an incendiary flame in a vast and sometimes hostile world.  Her passion and enthusiasm for making and scrutinising what is made was infectious and inspiring… I believe her vision will be carried forward by the large community of artists she inspired’.

Some of the artworks on display included Ms Brigitte Bestel’s Three Jugs which she created in honour of Armstrong, who she said ‘taught me to pull a spout!’; Ms Kim Bagley’s Cow Tags – ‘A piece for Juliet, who always made her work for others’; and One in a Million by Ms Mhairi Pattenden which symbolised Armstrong’s character and powerful presence.

Another piece titled Cause and Effect by Rory Klopper, illustrated how simple actions create a reaction which sets off an undetermined series of events - ‘Juliet lived a vital life, her actions influenced people and communities,’ said Klopper. 

Other tributes to Armstrong included:

·    ‘Thank you Juliet for being the “fire”, living your life passionately and wholly.  As an artist and as a woman, I am forever grateful for the courage, conviction, wisdom, knowledge, and “fire” you shared with me,’ said Ms Nozipho Kunene. 

·    ‘Juliet inspired me to experiment with my work, always encouraging the pushing of boundaries and the development of self,’ said Ms Sharon Weaving. 

·    ‘Among many fond memories I have of Juliet, I am proud to have had the honour of watching her as she created her own masterpiece…her knowledge, talent and passion shaped and influenced my work and love of clay in immeasurable ways,’ said Ms Candice Vorovecz. 

·    ‘From Juliet I learnt the value and importance of engaging with art and design in my immediate context.  She helped me to stand up for my own work and encouraged me to pursue research at the highest level,’ said Ms Kim Bagley.

·    ‘May Juliet’s work and teachings continue to inspire 3D artists, whether they are working in traditional mediums or within the new technologies,’ said Mr Rob Mills. 

·    ‘Juliet was the centre of the ceramic department’s life; we revolved around her.  She was offbeat, full of exciting ideas and called a spade a spade.  She was inspiring’, said Ms Mhairi Pattenden.

author email : crookesv@ukzn.ac.za