Azibuyele Emasisweni and the African speculative time complex

Updated: Jul 8

Some thoughts on the exhibition presented by Pitika Ntuli at the Melrose Gallery

Pitika Ntuli, Child on a Swaying Crescent Moon , 88 x 94 x 38 cm (

There are no words for the wonders one witnesses on the trail to thwasa. Curiouser still is how each revelation relates to time, rendering inter-generational rhetoric paramount for a young sangoma. Bekuyinhlnhla yami ke when Thembinkosi Goniwe invited me to join a panel 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, are uncomplicated. A picture is painted of a people for whom survival is dependent on different desires. A return to what we knew, or where we might have once felt safe.

For the born frees such idioms may seem outdated. They aestheticise 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 hetero-patriarchal capitalistic logics of time which 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 which one might have once called a future. While the elder remains committed to his pre colonial aspirations, one wonders whether the return to the source could take us kwenye inhlobo yesisu - the motherboard perhaps.

The term revolution itself implies a certain return, albeit aligned inevitability with change. Young people today may not carry a dompas, but their data is being mined and monitored now more than ever. Networks and algorithms have rendered us data points and consumers and predetermine the nature of the lives we lead. Terms like post-colonial and post-apartheid further obscure the present and thwart us from thinking of time on our own terms. The phrase ‘African time’ has also successfully launched a long lasting inferiority complex, labeling us as lazy and aimless. This exhibition might be proposing, perhaps unknowingly, polychronic possibilities for the contemporary African.

The spiritual infrastructure of African cultures seems suited to hijack systems which would otherwise be used for our oppression. Thinkers like Suhail Malik and Arven Ananasseri, present the speculative time complex as a response to the preemptive nature of algorithms, surveillance and governance. They use terms like preemptive strike and preemptive personality to illustrate their theory that the future happens before the present. I propose the African speculative time complex as a way of adapting the various strands of the multiplicities of time for the local and contemporary context.

The African speculative time complex should not simply resist Eurocentric definitions of temporality because it should not be borne from a reactionary position. Nor should it be oblivious to entropy and the tangible trials and tribulations zentsha yamanje. It stems from the knowledge that rather than being linear, time is a spiral. It can be encountered or lived, occupy any point, or even a multitude of points and that indegenous time is tied to technology.

Bab’ Ntuli tells a transfixing story of the time he spent in detention as a political prisoner during the apartheid era, in Swaziland. How 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. Out of nowhere, the student moments of 1976 reached into the future befuna ukufunda ngolimi lwebele and the born-frees responded with their own student movements of 2015/16 attempting to undo certain histories which were seemingly set in stone.

In a country where crisis is a calamitous constant, we must be cognisant of the sinister sides of current technologies. Without positioning ourselves outside of the scope of the inevitable passage of time, we have to 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 who has once described himself as the ‘owner of the drumsticks’ is laying the foundation for future flows with this exhibition. The onus then is on us to literally beat the system. To give breath to the source which has always been within us. By virtue of us having wombs, we are 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.