Art and Nature Ardmore Ceramics South Africa

Article excerpt

ARDMORE CERAMIC ART IS AN ENTERPRISE THAT produces decorative ceramics in the rural KwaZulu-Natal Midlands of South Africa. It has been in existence for more than 25 years, since 1985, when a newly qualified and newly married fine arts graduate, Fee Halsted-Berning, moved to a farm near the village of Winterton and began making ceramics, in order to earn a living. She worked with a local woman, Bonnie Ntshalintshali, (1967-1999) (1) making painted sculptures. Ardmore has since become famous both nationally and internationally, as have many of the individual ceramics artists and it has achieved the highest prices ever paid for South African ceramics. (2) The enterprise now employs 100 people, working from two separate studios that include a gallery and museum.

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Like much of rural South Africa, rural KwaZulu-Natal is a poverty-stricken area, rife with AIDS, (3) poor living conditions and unemployment. One possible solution to the problem of poverty is the growth of small enterprises, which contributes to economic growth and job creation. The crafts sector is seen as an important part of small enterprise development. The Midlands Meander, where Ardmore is situated, is part of a tourist route that attracts local and international tourists. This experience of South African culture is largely dependent upon crafts such as the ceramics made at Ardmore.

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There are two interesting aspects to Ardmore's designs: the first is the actual ceramics produced and the second is the structure of the enterprise in terms of its business and production processes. Ardmore products (4) have changed throughout its history and different artists contribute different creative approaches, yet the products remain identifiable as Ardmore's. They consist firstly of a relatively simple studio line of cups, bowls, platters, small jugs, egg cups and candlesticks that have simple modelling, for example, platters surrounded by modelled leaves and teacups with sculpted handles based on animals, all painted with elaborate surface patterns. Halsted-Berning refers to these as 'curios'.

Secondly, the studio makes painted sculptures and white sculptures, largely inspired by Ntalintshali's original works, which are generally tableaux or totems of figures, animals and flora, that reflect various narratives (for example, scenes from the Bible or in the studio to name just a few). These are exhibited and sold as 'art' in serious local and international galleries, are expensive, are collectable and can be found in museums or are sold at auction. The third range, which at present seems to be the focus of the studio, are the large, multifaceted, modelled and painted vessels. Few of the Ardmore products are functional, being too elaborate and beautiful, as well as expensive, although it is conceivable that smaller pieces might be utilised.

In general, the Ardmore style consists of simple shapes, elaborated with complex modelled additions and highly detailed, brightly coloured painted surfaces. The essential Ardmore subject is nature, which is not restricted to South African subjects but includes natural themes from around the world. The vessels are covered with modelled animals such as leopards, lions, cheetahs, panthers, tigers, elephants, zebras, giraffes, fish and birds such as toucans, flamingos and sunbirds, as well as many flowers both indigenous and exotic.

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They reflect nature in the sense explained by the historian Jacques Barzin (2000:756), as an entity that does not exist but as one that is constructed from man's experiences and for his purposes. It "feeds him, it yields in a thousand ways to his handling and it is beautiful. The sight of it often gives pure, mindless joy." Nature, as seen by Barzin and others has, for Westerners, associations not with the primitive, fearsome and untamable forces of nature but with the domestic, the tamed and the bountiful. …