By Nii Tei Laryea.

“All pandemics seem to have one purpose, to strip people of their flesh leaving only bones! 

So we use our bones to heal. 

Our divinatory bones, and an angry abused earth are the catalyst underpinning this exhibition.

 I believe it is vitally important to focus people’s minds on healing in all its aspects at a time like this, and to emphasise that our common survival depends on us working collectively to both heal ourselves and the earth.”  – Pitika Ntuli

In the midst of the ongoing COVID 19 pandemic, the Melrose gallery in South Africa held an online exhibition of the multi-faceted Pitika Ntuli‘s striking, haunting work: 45 animal bone sculptures, each with its own praise song written by Ntuli extolling not only the sculpture, but in true traditionalist fashion, the very bone used – the source of the sculpture. 

In addition, 33 musicians, poets, writers and thought leaders such as Sibongile Khumalo, Simphiwe Dana, Zolani Mahola, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Gcina Mhlope and Napo Masheane were engaged by Pitika to explore details of the artwork and concepts of African spirituality and indigenous knowledge. 

The ensuing result was an exhibition uniquely appropriate for the times – a virtual multi-media collection of images, poetry, song, films and talks highlighting our need for the veneration of nature rather than its current decimation, and the possibility of rebirth by “Return(ing) to the Source”.  This exhibition became the highlight of the virtual South African National Arts Festival from June to August 2020.

Sculptor, poet, sangoma (traditional healer), academic, activist, social commentator, Pitika Ntuli was born in 1942 in the Masekeni township of the Guateng province of South Africa. 

He holds an MFA from the Pratt Institute in New York and an MA in Comparative Industrial Relations and Industrial Sociology, gained during 32 years spent in exile, including a year on death row in Swaziland before being released after international pressure was applied. 

Pitika Ntuli works in wood, bone, granite, metal and found objects, “depending on what I’m feeling at a particular time and what I want to do”.

Notably, the sangoma’s favoured material is bone when he wishes to evoke a particular spiritual feeling. 

Found objects are “freed from menial use” in his sculptures. 

His 19 tonne public works sculpture titled “Quantum People” and inspired by the African Union’s Agenda for 2063 uses granite and metal chains and took over four years to complete.

Ntuli describes his motivation and art as follows:

“I kissed the fragrance of dawn 

In a night of electric storms uprooting trees eMalahleni

I inhaled coal smoke and flames

Today I breathe fires of poetry

In my land!

I was caressed and blown by winds of exile

There I learnt to crawl on my stomach like a viper

I hallucinate sculptures

Dream paintings and shed ideas as trees

Shed dead leaves in cactus land!

A bureaucrat, a teacher, I live within the ambit of:

Time of the Writer, Poetry Africa

I traverse the world wielding tapestries of words

In seminars, poetry conventricles

And festivals of word and rhythms”

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