Last year, luxe international fashion brand Hermès launched two scarves using Ardmore designs: The Savana Dance upon which a leopard chases a vervet monkey surrounded by giant jungle leaves and proteas, and a border of amasumpa; and La Marche du Zambeze, which features animals and plants native to the Zambezi flowing around a central elephant. As with Ardmore ceramics, the surface is full to bursting with patterns filling surprising nooks and crannies: leopard print or python skin and Zulu symbolism pop up just where you least expect it. The success of the scarves, which have sold out in many stores, has led to the designs being translated into enamel bracelets, swimwear and women’s clothing for Hermes’ Spring collection. “There is a universal appeal to our work,” says Fée . “We translate the classical, and throw out to the world what is native to all of us. And you just know, looking at the monkey in The Savana Dance, that it must have done something very naughty”.
The three-decade-long story of Ardmore Ceramic Art Studio is complex, wide-ranging and dramatic. It includes a visionary founder; a community beset by racial, economic, and health problems; a demonstration of the way in which the personal is the political; and a celebration of art and its impact. It’s also a successful business with a global reach and one that has had an extraordinary impact on its community.
Ardmore Ceramic Art Studio’s vessels and sculptures were featured at both the Korean and Istanbul Biennales and are included in the Museum of Arts and Design’s permanent collection in New York and in the Museum of Cultures in Basel, Switzerland. Ardmore ceramics have been featured at sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses. In South Africa, Ardmore is regarded as a national treasure and its wares have been presented as gifts to international heads of state. Well known collectors of the studio’s work include Helen Mirren, Eric Clapton, and Sarah Brightman. The studio, the largest in South Africa, is located in one of its most beautiful regions, the rural KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, near the Drakensberg Mountains. The location is important in that the objects produced by the studio represent the totality of their environment; its landscape, wildlife, and community.
The majority of the ware produced at Ardmore is the result of teamwork; each piece is generally the work of two to four ceramic artists—a thrower, a sculptor, and a painter—yet the work of each is so in synch with the group that the final piece seems the work of a single artist. Baboon Hunt was hand coiled by Somandla Ntshalintshali; Petros Gumbi sculpted the leopard, and Bennet Zondo sculpted the Mandrill baboons; it was painted by Mickey Chonco. One of the most obvious characteristics of Ardmore ware is its extreme detailing. The surfaces are wildly decorated—leaves, flowers, and animals emerge from a welter of irregular dots, lines, and geometric patterns. Even the more somber pieces, an ongoing series of platters, cups, and large sculptural vases devoted to AIDS education, are extremely colourful and highly detailed in ways that do not interfere with the serious nature of their message.
While there is no typical Ardmore object, there is a basic notion embodied in every decorative or functional object produced by the collaborative: storytelling. The stories these pieces tell embrace a range of subjects and embody social issues, daily life, and African flora and fauna. Based on a traditional African aesthetic and narrative tradition, they are highly descriptive and drawn from both secular and sacred worlds. A lidded tureen, Mating Cranes Vessel by sculptor Victor Shabalala and painter Roux Gwala, shows the way a real creature is mythologized by this extraordinarily lush detailing. As this piece shows, this African, more specifically Zulu, aesthetic tradition is spliced with the vocabulary of traditional European ceramic forms; urns, tureens, vases, pitchers, teapots, and candlesticks as well as figurative statuary. This conjunction of African and European is startling and disjunctive, theatrical, folkloric and strangely natural. It reflects the oddness of contemporary African realities, existing as they do within the inescapable heritage of colonialism.
The studio trains artists who often have no prior background as potters or artists. They learn how to work two and three dimensionally and are taught how the business operates including marketing and a general overview of the economic issues. The throwing and sculpting studio is predominantly male and the painting area largely comprised of women. There are currently 60 artists and 15 trainees at Ardmore. The artists are given themes to work with; the development of individual styles within those constraints is encouraged. Pieces are never made in production—each is unique. The artists are all self-employed but work within the supportive community environment of the studio. They are provided with training, mentorship, materials, tools, and a guaranteed market for the pieces they produce.
Ardmore is the result of a question that its founder, Fée Halsted, asked herself as a young art student at Natal’s Durban Technicon in 1982. She wondered what it meant to be a South African living in apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. How could she, as a white, female artist bear witness to her time? Halsted’s teacher, the American ceramic artist David Middlebrook, encouraged her to answer these questions by merging her social conscience with her European and African influences. In 1985, Halsted began teaching a young African woman with polio, Bonnie Ntshalintshali, how to work in clay. Through trial and error, they developed what became Ardmore’s colorful and evocative signature style. As Halsted has said, “I made tiles and if one cracked I’d stick a bird or a rabbit on top to hide it.” Their initial work used low-fire terracotta clay painted with plaka, shoe polish, oven blackeners, glues, and epoxy. In 1990, after the two artists won South Africa’s prestigious Standard Bank Young Artist Award, they hit their stride and their work became more technically proficient. Halsted continued to build the business (named after her husband’s farm), developing the studio’s signature style and hiring more African women. Up until apartheid’s end in 1994, Halsted broke with every aspect of a South African life characterized by profound racism—she trained and paid her workers well, and valued and encouraged their individual personal styles. Along with establishing her business, she created artists.
KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, where the Ardmore studio is located, has the highest percentage of AIDS cases in South Africa. Halsted witnessed the way AIDS was destroying community, families, and fellow artists—Halsted’s partner Bonnie Ntshalintshali died of the disease in 1999—and decided the most effective way to discuss the disease and help spread information was for the studio to engage with the issue creatively. As this ceramic discussion developed, it produced some of the strongest work to emerge from the studio. The AIDS pieces have been exhibited extensively in South African communities.
One of Ardmore’s foremost artists, Wonderboy Nxumalo (who died of AIDS), made a series of plates that raised consciousness of the disease. The plate Three Best Ways, with its abstract border decoration, cartoon-like illustrations, and text panels, emphasizes the importance of condoms and fidelity.
Figurative groupings made by Ardmore artists also raise awareness of the epidemic through personal experiences. Moses and Fée Carrying a Dying Punch home from Ladysmith Hospital, was sculpted by Nhlanhla Nsundwane and painted by Punch Shabalala who was ill from complications associated with AIDS but later recovered. AIDS Monster Vase, a chilling and fantastical object, was sculpted by Sfiso Mvelase and painstakingly embellished by Roux Gwala. It depicts how HIV-AIDS has ravaged the rural community in KwaZulu-Natal. This work was exhibited at the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki in 2011.
Over the course of the past 30 years in her work as artist, designer, entrepreneur, and head of the largest ceramic collaborative in Africa, Fée Halsted has embraced the African principle of ubuntu, a concept that emphasizes the accomplishments of community. Halsted has translated this concept to mean, “we are because of others” (also the title of her 2012 book on Ardmore Ceramic Art Studio). This concept has allowed her to develop a business that is both idealistic and financially successful. “We are not simply a factory churning out one teapot or candlestick after another . . . . 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.”