MAY 2013 – The meteoric rise of the Ardmore ceramic studio, from the moment its creators Fée Halsted and Bonnie Ntshalintshali jointly won the prestigious Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year Award in 1990, to its global reach today, in high-end stores, homes, hotels, embassies, palaces and museums, from Australia to Zurich, is one of South Africa’s most legendary success stories.
Populated by a riotous array of handsculpted animals, birds and quirky blooms, the meticulously detailed vases, urns, bowls, plates and tureens that are produced from a humble studio in the heart of the picturesque KwaZulu-Natal Midlands have become coveted pieces of fine art prized by collectors around the world. Ardmore ceramics were featured at both the Korean and Istanbul biennales and are included in the Museum of Arts and Design’s permanent exhibition in New York as well as the Museum of Cultures in Basel, Switzerland.
An heir to the Coca-Cola fortune has collected over 700 pieces and reportedly rates the South African ceramics in the same league as Lalique, Royal Doulton and Moorcraft.
A vase by Ardmore’s celebrated late artist Wonderboy Nxumalo fetched a record R200 000 at a Sotheby’s auction in Johannesburg in 2008. Ardmore even
features in The Pot Book , an anthology of ceramic vessels produced by British ceramicist Edmund de Waal. De Waal sets Ardmore among the most venerated
ceramics in the world – Ming porcelain, Syrian pottery, Wedgwood china and The Martin Brothers stoneware.
In 1985, artist Fée Halsted, armed with an honours degree in Fine Arts and teaching experience from a local technical college, began working with her housekeeper’s daughter Bonnie Ntshalintshali, who, because of polio, was prevented from working on the Ardmore farm, in the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains in KwaZulu-Natal where they lived. Together the two women developed the characteristic Ardmore sculptural style – an unashamedly vivacious iconography renowned for its joyful use of colour and distinctive modelling of flora and fauna, combining the functional with the decorative – and were the first ceramic artists ever to win South Africa’s pre-eminent artistic award.
Their success drew in many of Ntshalintshali’s family and friends who wanted to earn a living by throwing, modelling and painting ceramics. Since then, Ardmore has grown substantially, and there are currently 42 painters, 24 sculptors and two throwers working at the studio (now located near the city of
Pietermaritzburg). The artists are all self-employed, but work within the supportive community environment of the studio, where they are provided with training, mentorship, materials, tools and a guaranteed market for the pieces they produce. The artistic process is a collaborative one in which several artists are involved in bringing each exuberant ceramic artwork to life.
The fantasy of the Ardmore world and the sheer fun of the original designs quickly attracted the art world. Specialist sales were held at Christie’s of London and Sotheby’s in Johannesburg and museums from Sweden to Kuala Lumpur clamoured to acquire choice pieces of the idiosyncratic ceramic art. Collectors quickly recognised the investment potential of these functional vessels adorned with enchanting leopards, zebras, giraffes, hyenas and monkeys, all bursting to life from an abundance of luxuriant exotic foliage.
Over the years, Ardmore’s artists have raked in numerous awards and exhibited widely in South Africa and around the world, the works now featured in various leading global galleries. Fans include actress Helen Mirren, singer Eric Clapton and soprano Sarah Brightman. Ardmore’s biggest collector, a New York-based businessman, recently acquired sculptor Petros Gumbi’s ‘Abundance’ – originally created for the COP17 climate change conference in Durban – for an undisclosed ‘record sum’. In South Africa, Ardmore is regarded as a national treasure, and has been presented as state gifts to everyone from Bill Clinton and Jacques Chirac to the princess of Japan, and auction house Christie’s refers to the works as ‘modern-day collectibles’.
Yet, despite the runaway success of her business enterprise, Halsted insists that Ardmore is more than a commercial undertaking. ‘We are not simply a factory
churning out one teapot or candlestick after another,’ she says. ‘We champion the individual over the brand and each piece has a much deeper underlying content – the story of that artist’s culture, his viewpoint and his daily struggles, particularly with the tragedy that the Aids pandemic has brought into peoples’ lives. So, while necessity may originally have forced Bonny and I to produce curios to sell to tourists visiting the Drakensberg, alongside these more utilitarian pieces we have the fine artworks of our most talented artists, what we call the Masterworks, and these are what the galleries and auction
houses and collectors deem worthy of collecting, cherishing, passing on.’ This commitment to artistic expression is what defines Ardmore as a studio and as a community, and its creations as works of fine art, claims Fraser Conlon, director of Amaridian, a NewYork Gallery specialising in contemporary African arts and design.
‘Bonnie’s tragic death as a result of HIV/Aids in 1999 marked a turning point for Ardmore,’ he says. ‘Fée recognised that the studio was suffering terribly from a disease that the artists knew very little about. It was ravishing their community, family and fellow artists. Rather than attempting a Western method of explanation, she decided that the most effective way to discuss the disease (which, at that time, was a culturally forbidden topic) was to engage the artists creatively. Through their art, a dialogue began which, over time, allowed them to channel their fears and lack of understanding into a creative outlet. As this “ceramic discussion” unfolded, it contributed to a generation of some of the strongest work ever to come out of the studio.’
Yet, even as Ardmore perseveres, it is not short on humour and happiness. Fresh combinations of whimsy fused with Zulu folklore continue to fascinate. ‘One cannot look at an Ardmore piece without smiling, and it is this that captivates audiences the world over,’ says Conlon. It is this, too, that separates craft from art and has resulted in these individualistic ceramics commanding phenomenal global recognition… and even more phenomenal price tags. Because, while at first glance Ardmore impresses with its virtuoso combination of sculpture and painting, get to know the story behind each work and its philosophy strikes even deeper.