Ardmore Ceramics breaks new ground in international market, writes Nosipho Mngoma
Ardmore Ceramics may be nestled in the tranquil KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, but their one-of-a-kind creations have had art-lovers all over the world buzzing for years.
Now, they have broken new ground, collaborating with luxury French manufacturer, Hermès of Paris to use Ardmore designs on a range of exquisite silk scarves named The Savana Dance and La Marche du Zambèze (on the Zambezi).
The designs feature animals and the South African national flower, the protea, in a “reinvention of traditional styles”, symbolising ubuntu.
Ardmore founder Fée Halsted recalls that she and daughter Megan Berning,
had been in Paris for an exhibition when their uniquely African artwork caught the attention of Hermès designers.
After a meeting, a collaboration between Ardmore and Hermès was signed. The scarves were designed by Ardmore artists, including Sydney Nyabeze and sisters Zinhle and Jabu Nene, under the guidance of Halsted’s eldest daughter, Catherine Berning, with the French company’s own designers.
Jabu, 41, learnt the delicate skill of painting ceramics from Punch Shabalala, a 28-year veteran at Ardmore. Shabalala’s mother had been Halsted’s domestic worker.
“One weekend, I came to help her and Fée asked if I wanted to learn to paint.”
Shabalala’s late cousin, Bonnie Ntshalintshali, had already been working with Halsted and together, the trio created the first of the timeless Ardmore pieces.
Shabalala had trained the Nene sisters.
Zinhle 38, had fallen in love with painting ceramics after watching older sister, Jabu, meticulously bring moulded clay pieces to life with a paintbrush.
As artists, the sisters understand the value of their work and appreciate the international acclaim which has American tourists who visit Ardmore greeting them by name.
“The scarves are very expensive, I would love to own one but I would never be able to afford it,” said Zinhle.
The scarves range from R3 500 to almost R7 000.
Jabu believes she would rather use that kind of money towards something else, such as a tertiary education for her daughter Nozipho Ntshalintshali. The 22-year-old wanted to study law at university, but due to “life circumstances”, ended up taking a chair across the table from her mother, painting Ardmore ceramics.
“Now I love painting. I can’t picture myself doing anything else. It took me only six months to develop my artistic ability to a point where I could start and finish a piece beautifully,” said Nozipho.
It was this unmatched beauty which had drawn Nyabeze, a Zimbabwean fine art graduate, to the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.
He had been taken by an Ardmore ceramic in a Johannesburg gallery.
“There was something very distinct about Ardmore art, and I wanted to be a part of it,” he said.
Halsted still checks all the work to ensure it is done to Ardmore standards and in the distinctive style. If she or the artists are unhappy, the work has to be scratched off and repainted.
Halsted and the Ardmore artists are delighted that their work can be worn as scarves, giving international fashion a proudly South African signature.
Ardmore operations manager, Clint Pavkovich, said even they did not realise the magnitude of the Hermès brand until he started seeing the reaction.
They have been receiving news of the scarves “popping up” at Hermès stores everywhere.