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Friedman’s primal instincts lead to her art ambassadorship

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An intricately crafted gorilla looking lovingly at the baby in her arms not only reflects ceramicist Mandi Friedman’s love of primates, but also what it means to be a woman. It’s therefore fitting that the piece has landed her a spot as South Africa’s Artist Ambassador at the Art Connects Women event in Dubai this March in honour of International Women’s Day.

Friedman’s entry has many layers of significance. “I seem to have formed a bit of a pattern with gorillas,” she says. “I feel a connection to them.” That’s why she named her piece Fossey, in tribute to the memory of Dian Fossey, whose pioneering work with gorillas in Rwanda was globally celebrated.

Friedman had already made her winning piece in 2020 for an auction being held by the World Wildlife Fund but it was ultimately cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. So, when she read about Art Connects Women on Instagram, she impulsively decided to submit the piece for consideration as she hadn’t yet shown it formally. “I didn’t think they would choose it,” she admits, “but now it’s Fossey’s time to shine.”

Ever since she received a mail informing her of her selection as her country’s Artist Ambassador, Friedman has been campaigning to raise enough money to attend the event in Dubai. To date, she’s reached half of her R40 000 goal with help from unexpected sources including many of her art shop’s customers.

“I have a plane ticket, so the question is whether I’ll be sleeping on the street and eating at all,” she says. Although she was given short notice, she’s disappointed not to have secured sponsorship from South African organisations, which usually have lengthy processes for such requests.

“Growing up, I wasn’t really interested in anything artistic,” Friedman says, discussing her creative journey. “It really happened only after I matriculated and started making porcelain dolls.” Though she made the dolls for a few years, she later concentrated on her studies and abandoned the hobby.

Her passion was reignited in the mid-1990s, when she started doing a pottery class which laid the foundation for a fulfilling career. “I don’t like traditional pottery” she says. “I don’t make cups, saucers, and plates, and I don’t use the wheel, I only hand build.” With the support of her pottery teacher, Friedman had her first exhibition in 2014, and has been crafting ceramics ever since.

Winning the 2019 Ceramics SA New Signature Award, at which she was recognised as a bright new name on the pottery scene, Friedman says it’s all about the process. “For me, pottery is completely grounding. I can be in the worst possible mood, and all I have to do is pick up the clay and half an hour later, I’m a different person.”

Having run Lollipops Catering for many years before the COVID-19 pandemic halted everything, Friedman shifted gears when she opened her shop, Potted Glass Studio, with a friend in March 2022. Driving around Linden, inspiration struck when she realised there was nowhere to paint ceramics in the area. One thing led to another, and she found a partner, a bisque supplier to front them stock and a shop with just the right energy. The rest is history.

“Now I teach pottery and my friend teaches stained glass, and we do all sorts of weird and wonderful other things,” says Friedman. Though she takes on catering jobs periodically, Friedman spends much of her time working in the shop. “I’m absolutely loving this part of my journey in my creative hub in the heart of Linden,” she says.

Though Friedman says art is subjective for buyers, creating artworks has healing properties. “It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad or what kind of art it is. It’s a form of meditation. The minute you sit down and focus on something that’s not concerned with what’s going on in Ukraine, Israel, and in South Africa, you go into another space where you’re completely invested in what you’re doing. It lights up your brain.”

Though Friedman is excited to be wowed by Dubai, she admits to having some trepidation about going to an Arab country at this time. “Yet art is a means to bridge gaps, so maybe we can do a little good,” she says. Being the South African Ambassador at a women’s exhibition on a world stage is slightly daunting, she says. “I feel like I’m representing South African ceramic art to the world.”

She aims to use the event as a platform to network and gain international exposure. “I want to make connections and be amazed by other people’s work. I’m looking forward to seeing the level of creativity that’s out there in the world, seeing what happens when women use their voices to put their art out there. One of the things that I’m most excited about is being exposed to 111 other artists from all over the world, including one artist from Swaziland who is also seeking funds.”

The event also celebrates the power of art in promoting cultural understanding, something to which Friedman relates. “It’s interesting to be immersed in someone else’s culture, and to see what’s art in their minds and if the same thing is beautiful to all of you.” She speaks of the diversity of culture in South Africa alone, where many of us come from different backgrounds and walks of life. “So many have nothing and yet they make art. To me, that’s incredible. That’s why I’m looking forward to meeting the other artists and seeing what drives them and why they do the art they do. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’m trying to seize it with both hands.”

Friedman emphasises the power art has in opening one’s eyes in a new way. “It’s supposed to give you a different perspective. So, when you look at the gorilla, what do you see? Just a gorilla? Or do you see a mother and the care in her eyes? Do you see the love and strength she brings? She’s a very powerful animal with a very small baby. She’s the backbone of a community. She’s the pillar. She’ll put her life on the line to protect her young.” That’s what women are about, she says. “We’re fierce creatures when we have to be.”

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