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Pitika Ntuli’s exhibition debuts at virtual National Arts Festival

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. 

Pitika Ntuli virtual National Arts Festival 2020
Pitika Ntuli at work on one of the 45 remarkable bone sculptures, which are paired with praise songs PHOTO Melrose Gallery

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 multi-media platform, where images of them will be seamlessly paired with words, songs and voices. 
     The words and voices of  Sibongile Khumalo, Simphiwe Dana, Zolani Mahola, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Gcina Mhlope, 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, 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. 

Pitika Ntuli virtual National Arts Festival 2020
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).

     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 80-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.  
     ‘I do not copy nor work like nature. I work with nature. Bones are vital, as in imbued with life, and it is 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. 

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