By BRUCE DENNILL
Pitika Ntuli’s exhibition Azibuyele Emasisweni (Return to the Source), which includes 45 bone sculptures (each with their own praise song) forms part of the virtual National Arts Festival from 25 June. 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. Ntuli has gathered a circle of 33 thought and creative leaders to engage with him around the exhibition and themes of slavery, African spirituality, indigenous knowledge systems and healing through poetry, poems, thought notes, essays and a talks programme. 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.
What sort of training have you received and how important do you think it is to seek training (in terms of learning first principles and refining technique)?
I am a self-taught artist. However, I studied for my Master of Fine Art degree at the Pratt Institute in New York. Training is great because you work and exchange ideas with a lot of different people and are exposed to a variety of different techniques you would otherwise not be exposed to. Its also helpful to have the feedback from fellow students and lecturers.
What is your principal medium, and why did you choose it?
I work in every medium that I can lay my hands on. I began my sculptural career working with wood, but I have since expanded to work with bone, stone, metal and found objects. The medium is usually determined by the theme I am working on at a specific time. For example, in the current exhibition, bones are critical because of the subject. If I decide to address the matter of the environment as a primary theme, I may use found objects to align with recycling. But increasingly, mixed media appeals to me.
Describe the techniques you use most. How complicated are your methods, and why is each step necessary?
I work with mallets and chisels or angle grinders, as well as pneumatic drills, electric drills, and die grinders, depending on the material. Everything in sculpture is complicated. Of course, every art is complicated. A painting is two-dimensional but a sculpture is 365 degrees, and this impacts on the ease or complexity of creating it! When I sculpt, I am interested in the potential of the material, so I never make maquettes. This can be quite demanding, since once I have removed something it cannot be replaced. This method tests my nerves!
Who is the single other artist whose style you most admire, and why?
Alberto Giacometti, a Swiss German early modernist. It was more his philosophical approach to art that compelled him to go deep into his subject. Also, Picasso for his wide range of ideas and vast field of choice for his materials. But most impressive for me are African artists of the past, with their ability to transform an ordinary statue into a powerful spiritual instrument that could be used for multiple purposes.
Galleries and other traditional means are only one way of marketing art. What do you believe are the most important other routes, and what is the most important insight you have gained in that area in your career?
There are galleries and galleries, each with their own food on the table. I have always earned my money from other things I do, like being a professor, Deputy Vice Chancellor and a host of other jobs so that I should not feel a strong pressure to sell my sculpture. A gallery like the Melrose is very different from the average gallery. They work enormously hard to empower artists and to curate shows that are important to what is happening in South Africa and Africa. They also work very hard to reach people who would not otherwise buy art and invest in their own culture.
Why do you create? What are your stated goals in producing art?
Art is, to me, a way of self-expression; a tool to help me come to grips with my emotions, ideas, joys and frustrations. Other people go to church to pray. For me, art is my communion with my spirits. It could best be described as worship! I make art to communicate all my existential questions and suggestions for a better world. In other words, art is tool through which I can help other people to gain insight into the world and to think creatively.