Gateway to the Soul

By Louise Irvine

Ardmore’s new silk scarf collection celebrates Bonnie Ntshalintshali, the studio’s founding artist. Many of Bonnie’s subjects reflected her deep religious convictions such as the Bible story of Jonah and the Whale depicted on the scarf design. Bonnie began working with Fèe Halsted at her new studio on the Ardmore farm in 1985 and their cross-cultural collaboration launched Ardmore Ceramic Art.

Bonnie was born on a farm in KwaZulu-Natal but she found field work too strenuous having contracted polio as a child. Instead, at the age of 18, she had the opportunity to learn ceramic art from Fée Halsted, a recent fine arts graduate from the University of Natal. Fée briefly taught sculpture in Durban before moving to the remote Ardmore farm in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains where she started her own studio.

Teaching was Fée’s vocation and Bonnie was an ideal student. They worked closely together and cultivated a great trust and respect for each other’s creative instincts. It was said that Bonnie used clay as “a gateway to her soul”. As well as Bible stories, she was inspired by Zulu life as shown in her Lobolo tableau which depicts the “bride price”. In this African custom, the bride’s family is paid for her hand in marriage with the man’s wealth which was traditionally calculated in cattle. The naïve sculpture is in the shape of a tiered wedding cake and includes Western influences such as the bride dressed in white.

In 1988, Bonnie’s visual storytelling won the Corobrick National Ceramics Award which is presented annually by a collective of celebrated South African potters whose mission is to provide educational opportunities and a supportive environment for its members. Two years later, Bonnie and Fée were the joint winners of the prestigious Standard Bank Award, the first time a ceramist and a black artist had received this accolade. It was also the first time that the award had been granted to two people working collaboratively. Although their work was very different, the close creative bond between the two women was recognized.

Encouraged by this success and a growing number of aspiring artists, including Punch and Mavis Shabalala, Fée converted the old stone stable block into a studio and named it Ardmore after the farm.

During the next few years, Fée and Bonnie were kept very busy preparing work for exhibitions at home and abroad including the Seville Expo in Spain (1992) and the Venice Biennale (1993) and the Johannesburg Biennale (1995).

Bonnie quickly established a reputation for her hand-built and vividly painted ceramic pieces which combined whimsical elements of daily life with biblical images. Among her subjects were Jonah and the Whale, Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, Daniel and the Lions and The Last Supper. Her last works were included in the Down to Earth exhibition held in 1998 at the LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton, NY.

Bonnie died of HIV/AIDS in 1999 at the age of 32 and four years later, Fée Halsted opened the Bonnie Ntshalintshali Museum of Ardmore, the first museum in South Africa to be dedicated to a black female artist. Bonnie’s work is also represented in many South African museums and private collections around the world. Her life story was told in a children’s book entitled Bonnie Ntshalintshali: A New Way with Paint and Clay which was published in 2004 in a series of Great African Artists.

To mark the opening of the new museum at Caversham dedicated to Bonnie in 2008, Petros Gumbi modeled a portrait of Bonnie at work and has continued to create several figurative pieces in her style such as the Adam and Eve figures in the WMODA museum collection. WMODA also has a figure from the Remember Bonnie tribute series sculpted by Petros in 2014.

Sidney Nzabeze painted several of Bonnie’s iconic images on a large Ardmore bowl in the WMODA collection including David and Goliath and Jonah and the Whale. The monumental Jonah and the Whale sculpture on display in the Bonnie Ntshalintshali Museum also inspired Pitso Mohlakoana to sculpt a smaller figure of Jonah emerging from the whale’s mouth which is now at WMODA.

To coincide with the launch of the new Bonnie scarf collection, Ardmore has created several new whale riders similar to the whimsical sculptures by Alex Sibanda in the WMODA collection. The most recent museum acquisition in the whale series is a rider modeled by Bonnie’s only son, Senzo Ntshalintshali. Following Bonnie’s premature death, Senzo was raised by his grandmother and he came to Ardmore to continue the legacy of his mother. Several of his relatives have worked for Ardmore including his uncles Somandla and Christopher Ntshalintshali who visited WMODA to demonstrate his skills in 2014.

The launch of the new Ardmore scarves collection coincided with World Whale Day which has been celebrated every year since 1980 on the third Sunday in February. The day initially drew attention to humpback whales in Hawaii and the threat of extinction. Now all whales are included in the world-wide campaign to promote awareness of our fragile ocean environment. The Save the Whales organization, founded in 1977, also has a mission to protect these beautiful marine mammals and believes education is the key to saving whales, oceans, and ourselves.

Proceeds from the sales of Ardmore’s new scarf collection will go to Bonnie’s mother.

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Ardmore Comes to WMODA