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The African Pot

At the foot of the Drakensburg Mountains, an imposing range that forms a border and backdrop for the province of Kwa Zulu Natal in South Africa is found the Ardmore Ceramics art studio.

Located on the farm from which-it takes its name, the unassuming studio has had a dramatic impact on the lives of those involved in the project, as well as on the ceramic aesthetic in South Africa as a whole.

Years ago, artist and lecturer Fee Halsted - Berning, while continuing to work on her own evocative ceramic sculpture, began training and teaching local artists. Today, Ardmore Ceramic Art now represents over 45 Zulu and Sotho Artists. In the rural South African context in which it is found, the Ardmore is a truly remarkable project and, importantly for those who participate, an economic as well as an artistic success. The studio has developed a collective aesthetic over the years, and it is precisely this aesthetic that has raised Ardmore above that of the ordinary into the realm of the extraordinary.

The "Ardmore style" is an organic ceramic style characterised by a combination of both pictorial and sculptural traditions. Functional tableware is transformed into the exotic, as local fauna and flora is reinterpreted into a mythical wonderland and an explosion of colour. While common threads and colours can be found running through the various pieces, artists are all encouraged to express an individuality of design, the overall aim being to combine good form with inspired surface design, thus creating a beautiful yet functional object.

The Ardmore style also provides the viewer with a wonderful sense of delight and mystery as flowers metamorphose into butterflies, fishes leap off jugs, becoming handles, and a lion is transformed into a teapot.

Coupling frogs and animals with important members (size matters!) also offer a humorous yet erotic approach. There is a strong sense of folklore and tradition, which is married with influences from a westernised education and the rigours of modern life. Indeed, the strong floral images are less interpretations of local indigenous plants than they are the flowers and vines of an imaginary paradise lost, peopled with giraffes and leopards and flying black angels.

Serpents in this Garden of Eden are not menacing but rather decorative parts of the whole as they weave themselves into the pattern and emerge at the other end as a stick or a part of the vine twisting around the vessel. The lion. the zebra, the monkey, while being such obvious images of Africa, might never have been seen by the artist, and thus become the archetypal lion or the zebra found in fireside stories. Thus, rhythmic designs. exuberant use of colour and meticulous details and patterning come together to portray a reality that is just as much a part of Africa as it is of the imagination.

One of life's harsher realities that has touched Ardmore to its core is that of Aids. Below the surface of the African fairytale world shown on the ceramics rose the serpent that was both menacing and lethal. Several of the most prominent and talented Ardmore artists died as a result of Aids-related illnesses. Paradise has been dealt a blow. Despite, or perhaps because of these blows, the studio moved forward and incorporated new images as new talents were developed. Today, the artists use the ceramics not only to portray the beautiful but also to draw attention to the deadly.

To make sure "we talk about it".

The maker made this pot
with a song in his heart
and a vision in his eyes
lifting it up I can almost hear him say

"I am a man
life is but clay in my hands
Creation is at my fingertips"

from The African Pot by
Fhazel Johennesse