TEST DIGITAL AND ART REALMS Pitika Ntuli’s exhibition debuts at virtual National Arts Festival
Curated by Ruzy Rusike

Fixed definitions of ‘contemporary’ and ‘primitive art’ have haunted African art history. Launching on June 25 at the National Arts Festival, Pitika Ntuli’s novel exhibition Azibuyele Emasisweni, (Return to the Source), presenting 45 bone sculptures (each with their own praise song) will challenge and test these terms and how art can be enjoyed virtually.

Ntuli’s chosen material, animal bones, and approach – that of a Sangoma allowing the material to guide him – invokes ancient African indigenous and spiritual knowledge systems. However, the viewer’s engagement with the sculptures will take place virtually on a multimedia platform, where images of them will be seamlessly paired with words, songs and voices.

Horny I rise to kiss the stars of love, is the cheeky title for bone sculpture Ntuli has produced for the now virtual National Arts Festival.

The words and voices of Sibongile Khumalo, Simphiwe Dana, Zolani Mahola, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Gcina Mhlophe, Napo Masheane and other respected musicians, poets and writers, can be heard and read, while viewing wraparound footage exploring the details of the
haunting animal bone sculptures. This makes for an unforgettable visual and audio experience. The first of its kind, it has been produced and conceived by The Melrose Gallery, Ntuli and curator Ruzy Rusike. It was motivated by the limits Covid-19 and social distancing have placed not only on South Africa’s annual art festival but the viewing of art in person.

As a proclaimed healer, Ntuli aims to use the animal bones to explore and ‘treat’ contemporary problems; from issues plaguing the state of the nation to the strife caused by Covid-19. The eighty-year-old artist has been circling pertinent issues as an academic, writer, activist and teacher but as the title of the exhibition suggests, he is returning to ‘the source’ of his expression. In turn he is encouraging society to return to the ‘source’ of African spiritualism and knowledge as the means of resolving corruption, greed, slavery 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.

In Thohoyandou’s Dream, the award-winning Pikita Nutli coaxes out a human face from animal bones. This is one of 45 sculptures, paired with praise-songs, on the virtual exhibition Azibuyele Emasisweni, (Return to the Source).


Pitika Ntuli at work on one of the 45 remarkable bone sculptures, which are paired with praise songs. Photo Melrose Gallery

“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.

Given the novel sculptures and haunting anthropomorphic shapes and Ntuli’s standing as a respected artist, activist and academic – he was awarded the lifetime achiever award in 2013 by the Arts & Culture Trust – Azibuyele Emasisweni, (Return to the Source) was expected to be one of the main highlights on the visual arts programme at the National Arts Festival, which usually takes place in Grahamstown.

When it was announced the festival would have to transform into a virtual one, the Melrose gallery, Rusike and Ntuli worked at delivering more than just a gallery of images of sculptures Pitika turned to his contemporaries, inviting 33 thought and creative leaders – which also include Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Homi Bhabha, Albie Sachs, Shado Twala, Ari Sitas, Nduduzo Makhathini, Ela Gandhi, Buti Manamela, Kwesi Owusu and Lallitha Jawahirilal – to engage with his art, contributing poems, songs, thought notes, essays and dialogues to compliment the sculptures in the online viewing room.

It is anticipated that these ‘artistic replies’ will greatly enrich the viewers’ experience of the exhibition. In light of the Covid-19 pandemic which is impacting so profoundly it is likely some of the responses will contribute to ongoing discussions and debates about healing

“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, (Return to the Source) was opened on June 25 by Minister of International Relations Naledi Pandor at 6.30pm. It will run until August 2. The exhibition can be viewed on www.themelrosegallery.com and other content on  www.nationalartsfestival.co.za

Collaborators: The high profile list of collaborators includes the Minister of International Relations Naledi Pandor, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Homi Bhabha, Don Mattera, the Deputy Minister of Education Buti Manamela, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, Shaheen Merali, Gcina Mhlophe, Sibongile Khumalo, Zolani Mahola, Ela Gandhi, Simphiwe Dana, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Kwesi Owusu, Eugene Skeef, Ahmed Rajab, Napo Masheane, Nalini Moodley, Antoinette Ntuli, Albie Sachs, Florence Masebe, Shado Twala, Juwon Ogungbe, Felix Yaa de Villiers, Ahmed Rajab, Ari Sitas, Lallitha Jawahirilal, Sope Maitufi, Bheki Gumede and Nduduzo Makhathini. These valuable engagements will be presented as poems, songs, thought notes,essays and dialogues in the online viewing room, and will be transcribed and included in the printed catalogue which will accompany the museum tour in 2021.

About Ntuli: He was born in 1940 in Springs and grew up in Witbank in Mpumalanga, South Africa. During the apartheid era Ntuli was arrested and made a political prisoner until 1978, when international pressure forced his release. Thus he embarked on a prodigious
career in exile. Since completing a Master of Fine Art at Pratt Institute in New York and an MA at Brunel University in London, in 1985 he has lectured art at various international and South African universities including; Central St. Martin’s College of Art and Wits University. He is primarily a sculptor. His stark skeletal structures are created in any physical medium he can find; metal, wood, stone, and bone and can range from small to monumental works in granite that weigh in excess of 19 tonnes. He has held numerous solo exhibitions and participated in a myriad of group exhibitions, mostly in London. His works are held in numerous important public, private and corporate collections.

About Rusike: Rusike is an artist, curator and a social activist she has curated many local and international exhibitions such as, Ubuntuism Re-chanted, Palazzo Bembo, Venice, Italy. This landscape. This landscape! The Quintessential Metaphor For Life Tribute Exhibition to David Koloane, RMB Turbine Art Fair. Alongside Thembinkosi Goniwe, The Art Africa Fair 2017, A Flagrant Arcade in Contemporary Art. Rusike was the curatorial researcher for the touring exhibition Towards Intersections: Negotiating Subjects, Objects and Contexts hosted at UNISA Art Gallery, Pretoria, Museum Africa, Newtown, Johannesburg and Gordon Institute of Business Science, Hyde Park, Johannesburg.