Ardmore: where art and ubuntu meet
IN MY experience, there are four kinds of people who use the word "ubuntu". There are the windbag politicians and pseudo-ideologues, who trot it out as part of the empty rhetoric that constitutes their public pronouncements — typically in an effort to avoid taking personal responsibility for something. There are the entrepreneurs and corporations who turn the word into a money-making opportunity, offering workshops on things such as "ubuntu" management techniques. There are naive citizens and consumers who make vague references to it because it ostensibly affirms something about being "South African" (as if there were no other place in the world where reciprocity is viewed as integral to human relationships).
But there are also people who use the word with integrity and sincerity, because it encapsulates something about their lived experience. When Fée Halsted invokes the term and the concept to describe the Ardmore ceramic art community, it’s difficult to be cynical in response.
Halsted met, tutored then began collaborating with Bonnie Ntshalintshali in the 1980s; the two of them developed a working relationship and a friendship that made manifest the mutual obligation and identity formation espoused as ubuntu principles. Their joint acceptance of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award in 1990 provided an important form of institutional (and financial) acknowledgement.
They did not, of course, start off on an even socioeconomic footing; Ntshalintshali was the daughter of Halsted’s domestic worker. Yet, as Halsted insists, they learned from one another and were co-creators. Indeed, Ntshalintshali arguably became the better-known artist, particularly as Halsted turned her attention to mentoring other young ceramicists and to the business of selling their work.
The apprenticeship model was thus reproduced: artists of various levels of experience came to live and learn with Halsted at Ardmore Farm in the central Drakensberg. They would each become autonomous practitioners, recognised in their own right and (with Halsted acting as their promoter) displayed in private or public collections around the world.
This is the story that Halsted narrates in Ardmore: We Are Because Of Others (Random House Struik). Her voice is supplemented at various points by those of her proteges and other associates, but for the most part the text is a memoir. Halsted writes in a chatty, informal, anecdotal mode; the prose is not scintillating, but one gets a clear sense of the personality driving the Ardmore project for almost three decades.
Many who page through this book will do so not for the text but for the images. There are more than 300 photographs (most taken by Roger de la Harpe) capturing the fine detail, bold colours and quirky concepts for which Ardmore’s artists are known. Here we have vases, urns, bowls, plates, tureens, candlesticks, milk jugs, butter dishes … such a list might seem to describe functional objects, but in most cases the basic form is merely a vehicle for the decorative flourishes that constitute Ardmore’s signature painted ceramic style.
The photographs bear testament, nonetheless, to a diverse range of artistic visions, temperaments and methods. As Halsted notes, there are "the realists who observe nature closely" and "the exotic artists whose work … is elegantly stylised"; there are "storytellers" who "incorporate the human figure" to depict "history and culture", "everyday events" or social issues ("AIDS, alcohol abuse and promiscuity"); and there are "free spirits" who pursue l’art pour l’art "without inhibition or apology".
The profiles of Ardmore artists past and present are paired with examples of their work, vividly demonstrating this diversity of interests and approaches. We learn how Wonderboy Nxumalo, Lovemore Sithole, Jabu Nene, Thabo Mbele, Wiseman Ndlovu and many others followed in Bonnie Ntshalintshali’s footsteps (along with a number of her family members and namesakes — the Ntshalintshali surname features prominently in Ardmore’s history). The book’s comprehensive index will make it a useful resource for those wishing to find out more about these artists in years to come.
Yet the narrative perspective remains that of Halsted, and this framing reinforces her position as patron: both one who offers patronage and one who is, potentially, patronising. The patron-potter-painter dynamic is, in this case, inflected by race, even though Halsted rejects any interpretation of Ardmore in terms of white and black; she asserts "there are no politics, gender or race in creativity". This seems naive. Perhaps, as a girl growing up in then Rhodesia, she might be excused for having "little understanding of the politics of the day". But surely her move to apartheid South Africa forced her to acknowledge the pervasive influence of the political?
Halsted describes how she and her fellow artists felt helpless on those occasions when they "collided with a world so different from rural Africa", establishing a binary between an idealised state of/in nature and a corrupt, tainted, urban way of life. The former, she affirms, is the proper terrain of the artist, particularly the African artist.
This is a dangerous, essentialist discourse; the notion that "Africa" is rural and "the West" is urban has, in the past, been associated with colonial assumptions that Africa is backward and Europe progressive. Twentieth-century rejections of European sterility and African vitality tended only to reinscribe this polarisation.
Likewise, Halsted’s celebration of Zulu identity is troubling: "In 1879, when the British invaded Zululand … it was not bullets that destroyed the Zulu nation. It was a loss of pride. In a small way, Ardmore has helped rekindle that pride." This seems to neglect entirely a contemporary South African context in which (most notably during Jacob Zuma’s presidency) Zulu nationalism has been resurgent.
The fact is that Halsted, through the sculptors, throwers and painters under her tutelage, can take credit for works of art much more nuanced than any of these sweeping claims allows. Hybrids of the traditional and the modern, the urban and the rural, these works take as their subjects both the "human", political world and the "natural" world of fauna and flora.
Academics such as Steven Smith and Anitra Nettleton have observed similar processes of fusion in Southern African art/craft more generally. In ceramics, the potters Nesta Nala and Clive Sithole represent a significant generational shift: Smith notes that, whereas Nala is renowned as a practitioner of "traditional", collective, functional pottery, Sithole (having studied under Nala) is a studio potter whose work is more in dialogue with "the world art scene".
The Ardmore story thus fits into a local ceramic art history of accommodation and adaptation, encapsulated in the scope of ceramic collections such as those in the Iziko National Museum — which extends from Han dynasty pieces to the work of South African ceramic artists — and the Corobrik Collection at the Pretoria Art Museum. Yet the work produced at Ardmore (which has now expanded to three sites in KwaZulu-Natal) remains distinct and iconic. Perhaps, after all, Halsted and company have managed to trump both history and politics.
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