Hoopoes at WMODA

By Louise Irvine

The African hoopoe has been popping up on Ardmore designs for decades and flitted into our thoughts again as we reset the new Ardmore gallery in Hollywood. The bird was a star of the Camp Critters textile pattern and Savuti wallpaper design and interacts with monkeys and leopards on ceramic urns and tureens. Birds are the specialty of Betty Ntshingala who excels in the male-dominated Ardmore sculpture studio.

The hoopoe bird is named after its distinctive “oop, oop, oop” mating call. The bird is widely found in South Africa and is generally observed singly or with a mate, darting around at ground level collecting insects with their rapier sharp beaks. Their plumage is a cinnamon color with distinctive black and white wings. Their most distinctive feature is their striking crest which lies flat until the bird is alarmed or excited. Because of this feather crown, hoopoes were regarded as the ruler of the avian kingdom in Greek literature.

In ancient Egypt, the hoopoe was considered sacred and they were depicted on the walls of tombs and temples. The hoopoe also appears in the Bible carrying messages from King Solomon to the Queen of Sheba. As well as its popularity in Africa, the hoopoe was chosen as the national bird of Israel in 2008 during the 60th anniversary of the country after a poll of 155,000 citizens.

The most famous portrayal of hoopoes in ceramic art was by Johann Kandler for the Meissen factory in the 1740s. This exquisite porcelain pair was formerly in the Rockefeller collection and sold at Christie’s in New York in 2018 for $175,000. An Ardmore hoopoe sculpture by Betty Ntshingala appears to have been inspired by these rare birds. Fée Halsted, Ardmore’s founder and artistic director, often shows photographs of European ceramic art that she admires to her team of sculptors and painters and the studio walls provide a wealth of inspirational images from art and nature.

Betty Ntshingala was formerly a domestic worker and house builder before joining Ardmore to support her large family of six children. She trained as a sculptor under Fée’s guidance and specialized in bird studies which demonstrate her nurturing instincts. Her birds are busy with life’s chores building nests, laying eggs, and feeding their offspring. Betty’s talent was applauded in May 2011 when she was a guest artist at a symposium entitled Clay: The Art of Earth & Fire, at the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, USA.

Have fun birdwatching at WMODA when we reopen after the summer.