Updated: Mar 31
Pitika Ntuli, Child on a Swaying Crescent Moon , 88 x 94 x 38 cm (https://themelrosegallery.artfundi.com/exhibitions/azibuyele-emasisweni-return-to-the-source)
Recently, curator and art historian Thembinkosi Goniwe invited me to join a panel discussion on 80-year-old artist, academic, poet, and sangoma Pitika Ntuli’s recent exhibition Azibuyele Emasisweni at the Melrose Gallery. The discussion was held on Zoom due to the pandemic, and boasted Athi Joja, Hlonipha Mokoena, Ruzy Rusike, the artist himself, and was moderated by Goniwe.
Like anything regarding South African art, the panel presented its fair share of intriguing paradoxes. Even as I prepared my notes I dealt with the dizzying dialectic of just the title alone. Azibuyele Emasisweni as a term appears nested in the nostalgic nuances of a bygone era. In babu Ntuli’s own words it denotes a ‘return to the source’, which he goes on to signify as isisu. For a generation that lived through the everyday atrocities of apartheid, this going back and this source - this womb, is uncomplicated. They yearn simply for a return to what they once knew, or where they might have once felt safe.
For the born frees such idioms aestheticize Africa as perpetually historiographic and the womb as oppressively productive. The living being in which this womb is set is scarcely seen. Not the moment, manner, or motive of presumed conception; nor the willful vigor of wombs which are yet unknown.
Our elders may yearn for a return to an untouched Africa, but we are compelled to challenge the hetero-patriarchal capitalistic logics of time that pit the African against progress. Of course, this observation is a product of its time, but the contemporary moment necessitates a reflection of adages like ‘Africa is the future’ and ‘The future is female’, not at odds with the legitimate longings of our elders, but somehow reconciled.
In the context of this exhibition, an African conception of time is precariously at play. The artist spent three years working on this collection consisting of works sculpted from various animal bones. In African spirituality, bones are usually passed from generation to generation and are used during ukubhula. Bab’ Ntuli has said the 45 bone sculptures were made in order to ‘divine the future state of the nation in a season of anomie’. In a sense then, the artist is urging us to go back and forth, perhaps hinting at a recurring, revolving, or progressive past. In the artist's words: “... bones are the evidence that we existed 3.5 million years ago and they are carriers of our memories.”
The triumph of this exhibition is that it explicitly does what it says on the box. The divination ritual seems to have overcome the limitations of art world mumbo jumbo. While it began in the inaccessible clutches of the Melrose Gallery, it collided with this particular ‘season of anomie’ moving the exhibition online for the National Arts Festival. Thirty-three individuals including Sibongile Khumalo, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Nduduzo Makhathini, and Simphiwe Dana were invited to engage with the bone sculptures, producing tributary works that one might have once called a future.
Bab’ Ntuli tells a transfixing story of the time he spent in detention as a political prisoner during the apartheid era, Eswatini. When he was given soap he would sculpt it with his little fingernail, or squeeze the bread he got into his own art object. This age-old process of making things out of nothing is the network through which African time travels.
The confounding notion of African Time seems like a generative mode through which to explore African ontology. Without positioning ourselves outside of the scope of the inevitable passage of time, we must ponder pertinent ways to approach what Achille Mbembe calls ‘times of acceleration’. African time can help us do the ethical work of moving towards the internet of things and beings.
The elder Ntuli is laying the foundation for future flows with this exhibition. The onus then is on us to give breath to the source which has always been within us. We are the ones carrying the continent’s time and we cannot, nor should we want to skip a beat. We are here now, yet now has already ceased to exist. Soon we too may be ineffectually imploring future generations to return to what we once knew. Given this probability, we should be ensuring that now is something sound.