Few online exhibitions grabbed attention during the height of Covid. Pitika Ntuli’s Azibuyele Emasisweni, (Return to the Source) stood out for not only had the eighty-year-old artist produced 45 new sculptures from bones and other materials but in relaying their full significance some of the country’s most esteemed poets and musicians responded to the body of work with songs and poems. This made for an incredible online programme that won the Global Fine Art Awards (GFAA) – “You-2 Award”, however, as with all art, the works are best enjoyed in person. A national tour of Ntuli’s Azibuyele Emasisweni, which will show at the Oliewenhuis Art Museum in October and then the Durban Art Gallery in March 2023 curated by Ruzy Rusike, will give the public a chance to appreciate these extraordinary works up close.

Azibuyele Emasisweni, (Return to the Source) first opened at the National Arts Festival in June 2020 in an online format 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’.

As a Sangoma it is no surprise Ntuli turned to animal bones as the medium, for this body of work – 37 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 shapes 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 sociopolitical 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 from Sibongile Khumalo, Zolani Mahola, Simphiwe Dana, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Gcina Mhlope to Ngugi wa Thiongo, Homi Bhabha, Albie Sachs, Shado Twala and Ari Sitas among 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 the Oliewenhuis Museum, Bloemfontein on October 4 until 5 December 2022. It can be viewed on www.themelrosegallery.com

Collaborators: The high profile list of collaborators includes the Minister of International Relations Naledi Pandor, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Homi Bhabha, Don Mattera, the Deputy Minister of Education Buti Manamela, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, Shaheen Merali, Gcina Mhlope, Sibongile Khumalo, Zolani Mahola, Ela Gandhi, Simphiwe Dana, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Kwesi Owusu, Eugene Skeef, 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, Sandile Ngidi 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.

For more information contact craig@themelrosegallery.com


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