Azibuyele Emasisweni (Return to the Source)
14 April 2023 - 1 January 2024
Participating: Pitika Ntuli
Pitika Ntuli’s solo exhibition, Azibuyele Emasisweni, (Return to the Source), immediately grabbed attention when it first opened at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda in 2020. Not only had the eighty-year-old artist created 45 new sculptures from bones and other materials but some of the country's most esteemed poets and musicians responded to the body of work with songs and poems that were packaged for an online presentation of the exhibition during the Covid-pandemic. This proved to be a ground-breaking digital initiative that due to its global reach and ingenuity was recognised by the Global Fine Art Awards in 2021.
However, as with all art, his works are best appreciated in person and Durbanites will be next to enjoy this touring exhibition at the Durban Art Gallery. It will show at this museum from April 14 until January 2024 and is planned to coincide with the Articulate Africa Art and Book Fair that will take place in that city during its run.
Since Azibuyele Emasisweni, (Return to the Source) was opened by Naledi Pandor, Minister of International Relations, at the National Arts Festival in June 2020, it has travelled to the Free State, with a run at the Oliewenhuis Museum in Bloemfontein. Wherever it shows, it draws viewers and elicits interest not only due to Ntuli’s chosen medium, bones but also in the manner in which this veteran artist and intellectual challenges 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 - 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 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.
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