She was a rural artist who steered clear of politics and controversy. Living through the turbulence of KZN in the 80s, she produced idyllic images. But then an element of the modern-day chaos her art avoided, entered her life and ended it.

A ceramicist and sculptor, Bonnie Ntshalintshali constructed complex and colourful artwork, drawing inspiration from her Christian upbringing, rural surroundings and Zulu traditions. She shaped and fired clay before hand painting and decorating her work with meticulous detail. Ntshalintshali learned the skill from Fee Halsted, her mentor, who describes the late artist as ‘kind’ and ‘patient’.

“She came to work with me as a shy young girl. I approached her mother because I wanted someone to learn art with me and she immediately put her daughter forward because [Bonnie] had polio,” said Halsted.

Fee Halsted and Bonnie Ntshalintshali at KZN's Ardmore Ceramics Studio

Fee Halsted and Bonnie Ntshalintshali at KZN’s Ardmore Ceramics Studio

Ntshalintshali was born into a family of farm labourers in KwaZulu-Natal. Her mother saw art as a way for her to find alternative work. She knew manual labour on the farm would be tough for a young woman with a disability. At the age of 18 Ntshalintshali began an apprenticeship with Halsted, who ascribes their success to Ntshalintshali’s “craftsman skill and perfection”.

“I had the idea and Bonnie executed it in a way that there was care and commitment,” said Halsted. Ntshalintshali’s art allowed her to portray elements of her Zulu traditions and customs, but she was also influenced by Halsted’s Western approach to art.

This can be seen in the sculpture Lobola completed in 1988. The work portrays the South African Lobola custom whereby a man pays the family of his fiancé for her hand in marriage. A sculpted bride and her parents sit atop a pile of chickens, cattle and goats. Each figure is intricately painted, down to the tiny pink flowers that adorn the dress worn by the mother of the bride. However, the bride wears a white wedding dress and the sculpture is in the shape of a layered wedding cake. This layered visual storytelling was a hallmark of her work.

Lobola (1988) by Bonnie Ntshalintshali portrays the South African custom whereby a man pays the family of his fiancé for her hand in marriage.

Lobola (1988) by Bonnie Ntshalintshali portrays the South African Lobola custom.

Ntshalintshali’s art was mainly aimed at the tourism market; colourful curios that allowed visitors to capture comfortably their ‘African experience’ in the turbulent times of the late 80s and early 90s. They boarded their flights, conscience intact, sculpture neatly wrapped. Her art endorses a romantic view of a peaceful, rural Africa untouched by oppression, violence or inequality.

“How do you make Bonnie talk about politics when you’re living in an idyllic, rural environment with beautiful mountains and sheep?” asked Halsted, “It was not a place where we were worried about any political strife. People were not aware because you were living with nature and [Bonnie’s] closest meaningful thing was her religion and storytelling, which is part of Zulu culture”.

Looking back we are tempted to question the relationship between Ntshalintshali and her mentor. Did she play role of the labourer with Halsted steering the creative ship? Halstead talked about having the ideas while Ntshalintshali had the craftsman skill, developed in a rural environment where; “Young boys would model clay of oxen while they were herding their dad’s cattle. That’s why the sculptural [skill] comes in at a very early age, the ability to look at an animal or nature and then be able to model it”.

The layered style of the Saddle Bill Statue is typical of  Ntshalintshali’s works.

The layered style of the Saddle Bill Statue is typical of Ntshalintshali’s works.

At the age of 32, Ntshalintshali died of HIV/AIDS. Four years later Fee Halsted opened the Bonnie Ntshalintshali Museum of Ardmore, the first museum in South Africa to be dedicated to black female artists. But there is concern about how valuable this platform is for capturing, preserving and passing on African traditions and customs when it is governed by western perspectives. But perhaps her art was inspired by tourists who want a piece of Africa to display on foreign mantelpieces. Perhaps Bonnie Ntshalintshali’s value lies precisely in her rising above the chaos of the everyday and focusing on aesthetics and her market.

A world-renowned artist, she boasts an impressive list of exhibitions and awards including the Corobrik National Ceramic Award (1988) and the Standard Bank Young Artist Award (1990). Her work has been exhibited at the Seville Expo in Spain (1992) and the Venice Biennale (1993).