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IN MEMORIAM (article first published : 1999-11-13)

The death last week of ceramic artist Bonakele (Bonie) Ntshalintshali after a long illness has saddened South Africa's arts community and particularly her friends and colleagues at the Ardmore ceramic studio in Winterton. Ntshalintshali was based at Ardmore where she was born in 1967 and where she first began to work with clay under the guidance of the studio's founder, Fee Halsted-Berning.

Ntshalintshali first came to work in the studio in 1985 when Halsted-Berning was looking for someone who would be willing to be trained as a ceramist. Ntshalintshali had suffered from polio as a child and had spent four lonely years in Edendale hospital where she was given little chance of survival, and her mother suggested that she would find working with clay less physically demanding than farm work. After an apprenticeship making functional objects for the Ardmore studio, she began to work on her own ceramic sculptures, often inspired by biblical stories.

Author of Ardmore: An African Discovery, Gillian Scott, describes Ntshalintshali as an "inspirational role model" for her work colleagues at Ardmore and praises her for an achievement which seemed almost impossible given the considerable obstacles she faced and overcame in her lifetime.

In 1990, Ntshalintshali and Halsted-Berning were joint winners of the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year Award for Fine Art - the only ceramic artists to be so honoured. This meant that the two of them exhibited jointly at the Grahamstown Arts Festival that year and Ntshalinshali's name and work reached a wide audience for the first time. The Grahamstown Foundation bought Nativity - Ntshalintshali's own favourite among her works - for their collection and it miraculously survived the 1994 fire in the Settlers' Monument. In 1993 she was invited to exhibit in the Venice Biennale which she did, creating her ceramic sculpture, The Judgement.

Scott describes Ntshalintshali's work as influenced by her Catholic faith and characterised by her strong sense of colour and decoration. By incorporating African rituals and Western consumer products in her work, she broke the conventional boundaries of Western artistic standards. An example is her Last Supper which shows Jesus and the disciples at a table on which Coca-Cola, popcorn and Castle beer are side by side with traditional Zulu food - a goat's head, phutu and utshwala.

In 1990 and again two years later, Ntshalintshali was invited to be artist in residence on the local campus as part of the university's outreach programme. "She was an exceptional person," says department head Professor Juliet Armstrong. "She came to us at a time when black students were first coming in to the department, and she was an inspiration to them. She set an example of diligence and was willing to help." Armstrong describes Ntshalintshali as "a naive artist with enormous integrity," saying that her work had a finesse and finish that was extraordinary. "She could imagine things that people had never thought of before - and she executed them beautifully. "She did a great deal for art in general, making it accessible and showing that ordinary people can do beautiful work. And she loved doing it.

Speaking for the Tatham Art Gallery, deputy director Bryony Clarke said the gallery had been deeply saddened by Ntshalintshali's death. "Her significant contribution to contemporary ceramic production has not only been recognised in South Africa but internationally, and her sculptures are represented in collections world wide. Her refreshing personal interpretation of the world in the form of her uniquely vibrant and sophisticated ceramic sculptures and her active participation in South African art production will be sorely missed."

Ntshalintshali leaves her eight-year old son, Senzo.




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