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TRADE-AFRICA: Art Creating Hope in the Midst of Death and Disease

Stephanie Nieuwoudt

CAPE TOWN, Sep 25 2008 (IPS) - Zulu artists working at the Ardmore Ceramic Studio in South Africa’s coastal province of KwaZulu Natal have gone from poverty to international acclaim.

Ceramic artist Mickey Chonco with one of the artworks he created at the Ardmore Ceramic Studio in KwaZulu-Natal. Credit:  Ardmore Ceramic Studio

Ceramic artist Mickey Chonco with one of the artworks he created at the Ardmore Ceramic Studio in KwaZulu-Natal. Credit: Ardmore Ceramic Studio

Some of them have exhibited internationally and the work created by Ardmore artists can be seen in galleries, shops and embassies across the globe. Thousands of pieces are exported either through people who visit the studio and place orders or order through the internet.

The Ardmore studio was founded in 1985 by the Zimbabwean born ceramic artist Fee Halsted Berning. She had one employee at the time: Bonnie Ntshalintshali, a qualified ceramic artist. Together they created functional and fine art objects – Ardmore’s characteristic fantastical animals which decorate each piece.

Increasingly artists from the surrounding poor community came knocking on the door asking to be allowed to join the studio. Today there are 80 artists and all of them support extended families.

‘‘Some of the artists earn up to 26,000 rand (3,095 dollars) per month,’’ Halsted Berning told IPS. It is a large sum of money in any language but more so in the poverty-stricken rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal, which has the highest HIV prevalence in South Africa.

Tragically, Ntshalintshali became a victim of AIDS. Halsted Berning has created the Bonnie Ntshalintshali Museum and Gallery in her memory, the first museum in South Africa to be named after a black artist. Starting this year an annual cultural festival is to be held at the venue.

‘‘Many of the artists here have lost someone close to them to HIV/AIDS and many of our best artists have also succumbed to the disease,’’ said Halsted Berning. ‘‘The festival is a way to remember them. It is also a way to link the studio with the rest of the community as people from the surrounding areas perform at the festival as singers and dancers.

‘‘People who go to galleries are usually white people. With the exhibitions and the annual festival at Ardmore we invite local people so that they can see that one can make a living as an artist, even if you come from a poor community. It creates hope.’’

According to Halsted Berning, the people in these communities and the artists themselves do not necessarily have a concept of leaving behind a legacy. ‘‘By seeing the works of the people who have died, people realise that the work exists after the artist’s death,’’ explained Halsted Berning.

One of the most recent deaths at Ardmore was that of Wonderboy Nxumalo, an artist who represented Ardmore at the Christie's Exhibition and Auction in 2004. His scraffito pieces – scratching outlines on different layers of plaster – depicting the Anglo Zulu war were especially popular. He embellished his works with poems with HIV/AIDS awareness messages.

Through an Excellence Fund created by Halsted Berning, sick artists and their families are assured of medical care. ‘‘When Bonnie died I felt responsible for her son. I realised that people have to take responsibility for their own well-being and established the Fund so that they could do exactly that,’’ expounded Halsted Berning.

Six percent of what is earned per piece is paid into the fund by the artists. All dental and other medical expenses are then paid through the fund. Artists also attend a training centre, which is run in conjunction with the artist Malcolm Christian, founder of the Caversham Press where printmaking skills are taught.

‘‘I am looking to the future. Who is going to take over Ardmore when I die?’’ explained Halsted Berning. ‘‘The artists have to learn marketing and export skills.’’

For Happiness Sibisi her work as manager of the studio has taught her valuable skills: ‘‘When I arrived at the studio three years ago, I had just finished school but had no money to study further. Working here has improved my life tremendously. I now know how to manage a business. But it is a daily learning experience. Every day brings something new to learn.

‘‘During my annual leave, I attended a course in HIV/AIDS counselling because I want to help the people in my community who are living with this disease.’’

With her first salary Sibisi bought a mobile phone, with her second salary she bought a bed. Today she comfortably supports her daughter and the six children left behind by brothers and sisters who have died. She is also the proud owner of a brand new car.

Mickey Chonco has been with Ardmore for seven years. The quality of his life has improved dramatically, he told IPS: ‘‘I can now buy clothes and anything else that we need for my wife and me. But most important, I have grown tremendously as an artist. I also find a lot of pleasure in teaching sculpting and teaching skills to children from the community.’’

Who knows, the next time you pick up a ceramic piece with animals in bright colours, it might be one of the works created at Ardmore.

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