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Few online exhibitions grabbed attention during the height of Covid.

Courtesy of The Melrose Gallery.

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, however, as with all art, the works are best enjoyed in person. A national tour of Ntuli’s ‘Azibuyele Emasisweni’, which will show at Oliewenhuis Art Museum and then the Durban Art Gallery from October, will give the public a chance to appreciate these extraordinary works up close.

‘Azibuyele Emasisweni’, (Return to the Source) 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.

 The exhibition features 37 sculptures created by Pitika from bone. Although the dominant material used in this show is Bone (elephant, rhino, giraffe and horses), beads, shells, chains, computer circuit boards, pins, animal skins, and marbles were also integrated in the works, a deliberate act of ‘picking up’ interrupted African creative traditions.

 Pitika invited 33 thought and creative leaders to engage with him on the exhibition and its themes. These valuable contributions will be presented as poems, songs, thought notes, essays and dialogues in the online viewing room.

The high profile list of collaborators includes Naledi Pandor, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Ahmed Rajab, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, Shaheen Merali, Ari Sitas, Zolani Mahola, Eugene Skeef, Kwesi Owusu, Simphiwe Dana, Napo Masheane, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Ela Gandhi, Albie Sachs, Nalini Moodley-Diar, Sibongile Khumalo, Florence Masebe, Gcina Mhlophe, Shado Twala, Homi Bhabha, Juwon Ogungbe, Felix Konina Venter, Bheki Gumede, Antoinette Ntuli, Don Mattera, Lalitha Jawahirilal, Zee Ntuli Sophe Maithufi, Nduduzo Makhathini, Shaheen Merali, Buti Manamela supported by Monthati Masebe, Basetsana, Bontle ba Morena Kumalo, Lerato Zah Moloi, Sthandiwe, Zanda Kgoroge, Rami Chuene with daughters Botshelo and Nthateng.

It is anticipated that these ‘artistic replies’ will greatly enrich the viewers’ experience of the exhibition. We also expect , in light of the pandemic which is impacting so profoundly on every living thing on the planet, that some of the responses will contribute to ongoing discussions and debates about healing, and how we deal with it to come out stronger in the long term.

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. Oliewenhuis Art Museum is located at 16 Harry Smith Street, Bloemfontein and is open to the public from Monday to Friday between 08:00 and 17:00, and on Saturdays, Sundays, and public holidays between 09:00 and 16:00. Entrance is free and secure parking is available for visitors. The exhibition can be viewed on The Melrose Gallery.

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