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NTSHALINTSHALI MUSEUM (article first published : 2003-04-2)

When Bonnie Ntshalinshali died in 1999, it was another tragic Aids death for KwaZulu Natal, one among so many. But last Saturday, in the brilliant sunshine of a late summer day in the Midlands, Ntshalinshali was remembered when the Bonnie Ntshalinshali Museum at Springvale Farm in Rosetta was unveiled.

Opening the museum, Professor Alan Crump of Wits University made the point that when someone dies, it is what they leave behind that counts, the objects and the residue of their thoughts. And, once Ntshalinshali's young son Senzo and his grandmother had cut the red ribbon across the museum door, the objects made by his mother and her daughter could be seen, a reminder of an enormous artistic talent.

In 1990 Ntshalinshali and Fee Halsted Berning were the joint winners of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for visual art. Their story read like a fairy tale; Berning, a ceramic artist and graduate of the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of Natal, had started a ceramic studio at Ardmore in the Winterton district as a way of easing rural unemployment; Ntshalinshali, unable to cope with the work of a farm labourer following childhood polio joined her as a studio assistant.

Five years later they were the first ceramic artists to win the Standard Bank award and the first joint winners. Their major exhibition at the Grahamstown Festival brought Ardmore into the public gaze.

Crump told how the committee set up to select the 1990 Young Artist debated for two hours over whether they could give the award jointly; whether the two young women, both creative and one with the technical skill were indeed worthy winners. "We didn't know really how good they were," he said, adding that the award could be seen to have been prophetic.

Berning, Ntshalinshali, Phineas Mweli, Josephine Ghesa, Wonderboy Nxumalo and other artists put Ardmore on the map. A studio at Springvale in Rosetta - also the site of the Museum - joined the one at Ardmore when Berning and her husband moved there. And the beautiful, colourful ceramics came to be recognised, not just in South Africa, but overseas as well. Whether it is a colourful egg cup in the shape of a bird or a rhino, or a lavishly decorated jug or bowl with animal shapes as handles or winding in relief around the body of the piece, the Ardmore style is unmistakable.

Ntshalinshali and other artists also produced sculptural pieces. Among those in the museum are her Adam and Eve and her Jonah and the Whale. Both her work, and that of other artists on display, show what Crump referred to as the hybridisation of Zulu and European cultures. It is also a memorial to those who have died of Aids as well as being a triumphant celebration of something uniquely South African - and successful.

When Ntshalinshali and Mweli both died in the same month in 1999, there were those who feared that it would spell the end for Ardmore. But Berning has kept her vision alive, bringing other artists forward and proving, by major sales at Christie's in London and to Zanele Mbeki, the wife of the State President, among others that Ardmore is going forward.

Crump paid tribute to Berning's fortitude in keeping her world-class institution on track, and also creating, in the new museum, which is the first in South Africa dedicated to the work of a black artist, a monument to Ntshalinshali and the other Ardmore artists. Fittingly, the museum houses some of the Ardmore pieces which refer explicitly to Aids and its effects on the community from which the Ardmore artists have come. Margaret von Klemperer




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