Born in the Champagne Valley of KwaZulu-Natal, 43-year-old Victor Shabalala is an award-winning artist, who specialises in ceramics and has been working at his craft for the past 16 years.
His work earned him a merit award at the annual Absa L’Atelier in 2009 and a prize at the KZN Regional Show in 2011.
When he made the decision to open Zimele Ceramic Studio in 2014, after being employed by a renowned studio that also taught him the craft, he realised that there was a lot to business that he hadn’t been exposed to. He was fortunate enough to be selected from many applicants to be part of The SAB Foundation Tholoana Enterprise Programme, which invests in entrepreneurs who show the potential and commitment to grow a business and create jobs.
The studio’s brightly coloured vases, handmade cups, platters, and bowls are all inspired by animals and elements of nature. “My work is functional art. It’s unique and it’s collectible. But I’m just an artist. I didn’t know the business side of things like how to sell, find clients, and price my work.”
Victor was a prime candidate for the programme. Beyond being an entrepreneur, he is driven to make a positive contribution in his community. He has employed 17 artists who he has trained and who work for the business. “One day I’d like them to own shares in the business and become the rightful owners of Zimele Ceramics. I believe that will bring stability and sustainability to the organisation.”
But having so many artists on board means that even if the studio is making money, the share they receive is very little after paying for rent and electricity. “We use Underglaze paint on the works and then bake them in the oven for nine hours to protect the colours – so electricity is a huge cost. But unemployment is a big problem here and it’s better for them to make a little money and keep their minds and hands busy than to have no job,” he says.
With no money to buy material and no space to work when he started out, Victor says it was the goodwill of people that helped him get his business off the ground. Kwethu Children’s Home in Loskop, Estcourt allowed me to rent out the garage and his former employer donated bags of clay and gave him a few orders to fill to help bring money in. Any clay remaining from fulfilling orders he uses to teach kids and aspiring artists ceramics. “Teaching young people who know nothing about art and watching them become real artists in front of my eyes motivates me to become more professional and to make the business a success.”
Victor says he is excited at the prospect of receiving support from the Department of Arts and Culture, who visited the studio earlier in 2018. The department believes Zimele’s product needs to be exported and have said they will help with that in 2019. Plans are also afoot to extend the studio and build a gallery and art centre, but apart from lack of capital, Victor’s concern is that the business currently operates out of a garage on the premises of a property the business does not own. “There are children on the property, so we can’t just build. We need to build with them in mind.”
Work from the studio is also exhibited and sold at Tina Skukan West Gallery and Gallerie Pieter Scheenloop in Pretoria, and most recently in Franschhoek. A few hotels in the KwaZulu-Natal area also carry Zimele’s work. A lot of referrals come from the tourists’ inquiries and they end up coming to visit the studio.
Victor has a strong vision for the studio’s growth but has three immediate wishes: to find a regular market from which to sell, for galleries to buy the art outright rather than on consignment, and to get onto the relevant tourism databases in KwaZulu-Natal. He believes this will help with marketing, increased sales, and cashflow so more material can be bought – and make more art.
For more information about Zimele Ceramic Studio, contact Victor Shabalala or call him on 0632744598.
For more information about the Tholoana Enterprise programme visit the SAB Foundation website.