In recent times the humble black pot has been raised to a new status as it has become an important part of interior décor, being placed alongside masterpieces of western art. As with many Zulu artifacts, Zulu beer pots have for a long time been overlooked as pieces worth collecting - the reasons are partly political and partly historical.
The use of the Zulu beer pot is an integral part of Zulu culture since ritual beer drinking takes place in every aspect of the customary Zulu life. Beer is used to introduce a new child to the families ancestors, at puberty ceremonies, at all marriage ceremonies as well as burial ceremonies. The beer is also used as a medium to evoke the ancestors - it is served in a pot and left overnight in the back of the hut for the ancestor. Beer was used as a form of economic exchange. It is the essence of hospitality and communality. King Ceshwayo claimed that beer was 'the food of the Zulu's'.
The beer is brewed and served in low-fired clay vessels. Three sizes are common: the large imbiza, used for brewing, the ukhamba, used for serving and the umancishana. Pots are also used for cooking meat, storing water and grain and for drinking sour milk.
Most Zulu pots are blackened after the firing, this is largely for ritualistic purposes as the ancestors hide in dark, shady places. In time, through daily use, the pots develop a warm, brown, glossy patina characteristic of Zulu pots.
The patterns and decoration on the pots vary according to family and region. Usually one can distingush two styles of decoration : incised decoration and raised decoration.