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The exhibition by Pitika Ntuli, Azibuyele Emasisweni (Return to the Source) at this year’s Virtual National Arts Festival, has drawn praise – ‘Sangoma’ bone sculptures culminate in “highest artistic achievement” .

Naledi Pandor, the minister of International Relations and Cooperation, may not be an art critic, but she has a fine grasp on the impact of cultural expression on a national identity and perceptions of it. As such it was significant that she found Pitika Ntuli’s landmark exhibition Azibuyele Emasisweni, (Return to the Source) to be “one of highest of artistic achievements in the history of solo exhibitions in our country.”

In supporting her praise of this new body of remarkable works – 45 bone sculptures – during the virtual opening of the exhibition as part of the National Arts Festival she suggested that “the uniqueness of Ntuli’s work arises from a deep pool of indigenous knowledge and wisdom and centuries old cultural tradition. From this angle one could argue that this exhibition affirms the significance of African value systems, which gives a sense of pride and hope to our peoples’ culture that has often been denigrated and marginalised by colonialism, and thus through this exhibition we are opening channels for healing.”

Pitika Ntuli. Virtual National Arts Festival

Pregnancies of the Mind

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 is virtual on a multi-media platform, where images of them are seamlessly paired with works produced by some of South Africa’s most prominent cultural producers.

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 wrap-around 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, Pitika 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.

“This exhibition comes at the right time. The emphasis on healing has particular significance in the midst of the Covid pandemic and the uncertainty it has brought with it, which have given us an opportunity to reflect on our value systems and what we call the normal way of doing things,” said Pandor.

Azibuyele Emasisweni doesn’t only lead the viewer back in time but through a unique and original use of material, form and symbolism that reflects on the spiritual wasteland that might define this era, Ntuli manages to collapse those hard lines that were thought to divide ancient and contemporary concerns and art.

“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, (Return to the Source) will run until August 2. 

WHAT: Azibuyele Emasisweni (Return to the Source) – Pitika Ntuli
WHERE:  in the comfort of your home  #GalleryFromHome
INFO: The Melrose Gallery Craig Mark (Director)  I  E  I  C +27 83 777 6644