The South African artist Pitika Ntuli could not have conceived of the Covid-19 pandemic or the 15-day protests following George Floyd’s murder in his recent body of work.
Yet his unusual and haunting sculptures made from animals bones, featured in an exhibition considered a highlight of the country’s annual National Art Festival opening on June 25, was an apt response or antidote to the social and political upheaval of recent times.
As the exhibition title Return to the Source (Azibuyele Emasisweni) suggests, Ntuli advocates a return to the ‘source’ of African spiritualism and knowledge as a way to reconnect with human ethics, the essence of existence, and, of course, nature.
At the age of eighty, Ntuli, who is a nationally celebrated figure, was a political prisoner during the apartheid era, and served in leadership positions at various universities and institutions dedicated to tackling racism and cultural renewal, maybe in a good position to guide society through his artistic expression.
As a Sangoma (a healer guided by African traditions) it is no surprise he has turned to animal bones as the medium, for this new 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 sculptures, make for haunting, though comforting imagery.
“In indigenous communities (in South Africa) diviners identify fault lines in the community, families, and/or in people, using bones. In Nguni culture specifically, to ‘throw bones’ means to divine the state of things, to help in the healing process. As a sangoma/healer I see divination bones as sculptures imbued with multiple meanings. I believe that bones have spirits and consciousness, and it is that, that I seek to reveal in this exhibition,” says the Johannesburg-based artist.
Despite the local specificity of his practice and approach, Ntuli views bones as symbolically rich from a universal perspective.
“Bones are the evidence that we were alive 3.5 million years ago, and they are carriers of our memories,” he observes.
Ntuli is also interested in bones of those African people who drowned in the Middle Passage during the era of slavery, that lies deep in the Atlantic Ocean
The exhibition honoured this veritable bridge of bones and all those who survived the atrocity of the slave trade, and whose descendants are now the so-called ‘Diaspora’.
“Once slaves had served their purpose they were discarded. The incorporation of discarded objects into my bone sculptures speaks to this horror, and the need to recycle our value systems and re-humanise our souls,” says Ntuli.
The artist may be reaching into the depths of time as part of a process of catharsis and renewal, and reconnection to African values, however, he has also exploited new technology in exposing his sculptures to audiences around the world.
Return to the Source (Azibuyele Emasisweni) took place virtually on a multi-media platform. Images of these remarkable sculptures were paired with words, songs and voice of internationally renowned academics Homi Bhabha and Ari Sitas, and African writers, performers, including Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Kwesi Owusu, Shaheen Merali and other respected figures. Their words can be heard and read while viewing wrap-around footage exploring the details of the haunting animal bone sculptures. This made it an unforgettable visual and audio experience. It was 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 (which is now a virtual one) but the viewing of art in person.
These ‘artistic replies’ greatly enriched the viewers’ experience of the exhibition. In light of the Covid-19 pandemic which is impacting so profoundly, some of the responses contributed to ongoing discussions and debates about healing.
Return to the Source (Azibuyele Emasisweni) did not only lead viewers back in time but through a unique and original use of material, form and symbolism reflected 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.