Azibuyele Emasisweni, (Return to the Source) an exhibition of Pitika Ntuli was first opened at the National Arts Festival in June 2020 by Naledi Pandor, Minister of International Relations. It was part of the main programme of this arts festival and challenged fixed definitions of contemporary and traditional art. The exhibition was curated by Ruzy Rusike.
As a Sangoma it is no surprise Ntuli turned to animal bones as the medium, for this body of work – 45 bone sculptures all paired with praise songs. This makes for an unexpected contemporary art exhibition; African spiritualism and contemporary art are rarely bedfellows and his use of animal bones (elephant, rhino, giraffe and horses), which are gently coaxed into anthropomorphic shaped sculptures make for striking works.
Using the approach of a Sangoma, by allowing the material to guide him, Ntuli invokes ancient African indigenous and spiritual knowledge systems, which he believes can treat contemporary problems.
Ntuli has been circling pertinent socio-political issues as an academic, writer, activist and teacher but as the title of the exhibition suggests, he is returning to the source of expression. In turn, he is encouraging society to return to the source of African spiritualism and knowledge as the means of resolving corruption, greed and poverty. Above all, the bone sculptures –a result of Ntuli teasing out human features from the animal skeletons – articulate his desire for humankind to reconnect with nature.
“I do not copy nor work like nature. I work with nature! Bones are vital, as in imbued with life, and it this life that they possess that possesses me when I work. We are partners. Bones, like wood, have definite forms to work with. I do not oppose their internal and external directions, I externalise their inherent shapes to capture the beauty and the truth embedded in them, in other words I empower the bones to attain their own ideal,” observes Ntuli.
The works were so inspiring that musicians, poets, writers and thought leaders such as Sibongile Khumalo, Zolani Mahola, Simphiwe Dana, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Gcina Mhlope to Ngugi wa Thiongo, Homi Bhabha, Albie Sachs, Shado Twala and Ari Sitas and many others contributed songs, words and discussions for the exhibition’s online debut.
This flurry of artistic replies substantiated the impact of Ntuli’s sculptures and their poetic qualities. Ntuli attributes this to his main medium – bones, which are highly evocative.
“Bones have a special potency and subtle spiritual energies; their endurance is legendary. We know who we are, and where we come from as a result of studying bone fossils. Bones are the evidence that we were alive 3.5 million years ago, and they are carriers of our memories,” says Ntuli.
Azibuyele Emasisweni doesn’t only lead the viewer back in time but through a unique and original use of material, form and symbolism reflects on the spiritual wasteland that might define this era, thereby collapsing those hard lines that were thought to divide ancient and contemporary concerns and art.
Azibuyele Emasisweni will open at Oliewenhuis Art Museum, Bloemfontein at 17:30 for 18:00 on Tuesday, 4 October 2022 and will be show until Sunday, 4 December 2022. A walkabout of the exhibition will be conducted by the artist at 12:00 on Wednesday, 5 October 2022.