Xanthe Somers Wants Us to Question Everything About Our Relationship With Domestic Objects

There’s nothing unassuming about Xanthe Somers’ large-scale ceramic sculptures. A totemic lamp is almost shoulder height; a vase comes up to your belly button. At their size they can’t help but command attention. Their saturated colors and urgent scribbly patterns add to the initial attraction. Now based in London, Somers was born and grew up in Zimbabwe and later attended art school in South Africa. Coming at ceramics from a fine art background led her to explore clay in this sculptural way. “I never learned to throw as a potter,” she says. “I hand build. This process is very exciting as you can go beyond the imagined size that ceramic usually takes when thinking of mugs, bowls, etc. Re-thinking size is very important to me as I am trying to fracture the habit and convention that dictates how we understand the everyday.”

As a self-taught ceramicist, not knowing the “right” way to do things has led Somers down some experimental paths. Clay has become a medium for her to interrogate concepts beneath its fragile surface. As a contemporary ceramic sculptor, she describes her pieces as a satirical and questioning take on domestic objects. “We cannot treat domestic objects as inert beings; they have place and purpose and motivation,” she says. “Clay has a long history of being used for functional, domestic objects that are laden with political and social constructs. To use this medium and try to re-imagine its purpose helps me to probe oppressive colonial narratives still present in southern Africa, with an aim to excavate the colonial ghosts and systematic repressions still apparent in society.”

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Her looping patterns, uneven shapes and jolts of color add to Somers’s re-imagining of ceramic objects and her aim to disrupt what we’ve been taught to accept as beautiful or valuable. “We buy objects, based on aesthetics or value, that we have been taught to need or want. Our need to own and to express ourselves through the objects we surround ourselves with, is symptomatic of the economic dictatorship we are tied to. I try and distort these domestic pieces to pierce the facade, and to bring contemplation into a home setting.” Their unusual sizes also suggest new ways of using these familiar items. “My use of color, pattern, shape, size and form are all indicative of a search for something slightly different,” she says, “something that asks you to question prevailing ideas about need, function, beauty and aesthetics.”

While her pieces encourage contemplation and challenge ideas, Somers’s process is a highly physical one. “There is something very magical about taking raw clay from the ground and through your own hands manifesting it into something else,” she says. “It is an elemental practice that you are a part of from the beginning of the process to the final piece at the end. I always feel like I am nurturing the shapes, building them, smoothing them, washing them. It is a process of care.”

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