Pitika Ntuli on himself
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
A Place called Masekeni
A boy-man called Pitika
Bicca Maseko, writer, poet and best friend
The township called Masekeni, which literally means “sacks”, had three sections: Masakeni Number One, Blesbok Masekeni and Phelandaba. It is situated near the coal mining town of Witbank 60 miles east of Pretoria. There is nothing the town is historically linked with, except that half a mile to the west of Masakeni is the place we called Tendebiya (TNDB coalmine) where Winston Churchill, in his flight to Lorenco Marques during the Anglo Boer war met and was sheltered by a fellow Briton. But this I suspect is not history – for it was not in our history books. Masekeni was, like most slums, built of corrugated iron, old door and window frames, mud walls – in today’s politically correct language – recycled materials.
Talking of recycling, there were lorries that used to come to buy scrap metal, bottles, old bones etc. I can now, with hindsight, understand it as post war scarcity. To us it was pennies for the cinema and peanuts at the interval.
Pitika and I shared our childhood in this affluent wasteland. We, or more precisely, our parents, lived a street away from each other, right at the beginning of Blesbok Masekeni location and near the garbage dump. There was no garbage collection – it was dumped. Nearby we lived with it. Now and again we rescued a wire for our wire toys or an old polish tin for car wheels.
The township was lively and colourful – people strode around with pride. Nightfall did not belong to children. The terror of the township was a young man called Batman, who it was alleged, had a gun and moved alone unlike Zoro who had his gang.
At weekends there was music and music, blaring from shebeens and stokvel parties in that distant era of Zoot suits, taffeta dresses and Metamorphose Cream.
There was another text of ghosts and witches. At nightfall men went out of the township in search of Kruger coins. These are treasure troves buried by some well off Boers during their war with the British. No one seemed to come back with the loot. As the stories went people seemed to have no difficulty locating where it was buried, often digging right to the chest itself, but when they were about to pull it out something dreadful always happened, like a train coming at full speed from nowhere towards them, or a fearful Mamba would come charging. Ghosts were said to smack people’s faces leaving finger marks on victim’s faces for life. As children we did not run out of role models, or better still an adventurous future, pick and shovel in hand, in search of gold coins. Instead we ran away to exile which is another story.
Side by side with this seedier part of our location were religious zealots who prophesied doom. There were faith healers, born again Christians – over a hundred denominations. Over the weekend they held all night prayer meetings singing till morning. On some Sunday mornings there would be baptisms at a nearby well, known to be inhabited by a monster called Mamlambo. There had been a few deaths in it, attributed to the monster’s demand for sacrifice. Even the coal mine shafts had monsters.
We understood that there were families that were witches and they owned all sorts of creatures you find in the Zoo – chimpanzees, elephants, meerkats – and even zombies. There was a story that the primary school I attended was where these nocturnal creatures took their time off playing basket ball at the school grounds.
Roots as origins, roots as a shared collective memory, roots as a common ancestry, roots as a memory visited creatively more like in a dream. Talking of dreams and memory, some exiles develop fertile imaginations for the longed for mother/fatherland.
One does not have to look very far. The works speak for themselves. I see a journey here, a movement back to the source, an engagement with that source and its interrogation. The steel will-power and determination of our people – what was discarded is not only retrieved but resurrected and given a new lease of life. The masks our people wear to meet the ‘Baas and Missus’ every day are from the costumes department of this theatre of absurdities called life as lived in the 20th millennium.
At the Nerve End of Our Dream
By James Swinson, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London, UK
Exile in London
Pitika Ntuli arrived in the UK in 1978 from the frontline of the struggle against the Apartheid state in South Africa. He had spent a year in a death row cell in Swaziland before international pressure secured his release into exile. The role that political exiles have played in bringing the liberation struggle to the attention of the world is well documented. The degree to which many exiles have actively engaged with the political and cultural life of the host country is far less visible. During his time in London Pitika Ntuli was a practising artist, writer, teacher and cultural worker.
As a tutor at Camberwell College of Arts I worked with the painter Lillitha Jawahirilal on a video production Exiles, which featured Pitika and a circle of poets artists and musicians including Antoinette Ntuli, Eugene Skeef and Bicca Maseko. I then had the pleasure of getting to know Pitika and his work over the last ten years of his exile in London until his return home after the 1994 elections. During that time we taught together at Camberwell College of Arts and Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and collaborated on a number of projects.
Antoinette and Pitika’s house in Hackney was a meeting point for artists, activists and intellectuals from all corners of the globe and a veritable trans-disciplinary hothouse of culture, politics and creative practice. It was here that I spent time with Pitika surfing a world of art and ideas challenging assumptions and turning western history, philosophy and aesthetics upside down. Pitika approach to understanding the world is extensively multi-disciplinary, where an integrated approach to theory and practice in social and political terms applies equally to art practice and theory. As Deleuze in conversation with Foucault once observed:
Practice is a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is relay from one practice to another.
Intellectual life in London in the late 1980s to early 1990s was at a high point of obsession with post theory: post-modernism, post-structuralism, post-colonialism. Pitika relished the challenge of negotiating these emerging debates and interpreting the implications of this shifting and unstable field of critical theory for both students and colleagues alike. His direct experience of the clashes and contradictions of tradition and modernity in an African context together with the insights he had into western ideas and culture gave him an ideal vantage point to dissect the more fragmented and complex contemporary notions of power and identity. He was able to challenged Eurocentrism from an intercultural perspective.
Intercultural involvement consists not only of accepting the Other in an attempt to understand him or her and to enrich myself with his or her diversity. It also implies that the Other does the same with me, problematising my self-awareness.
The reappraisal of a fixed and timeless notion of tradition was central in combating a limited view of history that either condemned or praised traditional cultures on the same basis as primitive or naïve. Pitika contrasted the sophisticated knowledge systems and philosophies that underlie the belief systems of indigenous communities around the world with an ironic anthropological view of urban life and consumer culture. In addressing the imbalances of power, history and knowledge in the relationship between the North and the South, Pitika was anticipating the now pressing issue of the sustainability of a western industrialised lifestyle, in contrast to the wisdom of older communities that understand and value the land as a living system.
Music and cinema provided a vital interface between African traditional culture and modern technologies. Pitika was centrally involved in a number of initiatives in London bringing together musicians and poets from a wide range of cultural and artistic backgrounds. Jenako Arts in Stoke Newington an international venue and art centre, gave practical access to world music, where musicians performed and gave workshops to encourage the participation of the local communities. Apples and Snakes a performance poetry organisation promoted the performance of African poetry at a number of venues around London. These initiatives were a practical manifestation of the living culture that emerged from the interface between traditional forms and modern technologies that Pitika advocated.
The cinema that surfaced in the late 1980s such as Souleymane Cisse’s Yeelen (Mali 1987) and Iridrissa Ouedraogo’s Yaaba (Burkina Faso 1988) utilised the power of cinema to provide a powerful allegoric vision of indigenous African culture. Pitika was quick to seize on the implications of these films, which provided a tantalising glimpse of histories and stories as formative and powerful as Greek Mythology.
In 1993 just as Pitika and his family were contemplating an end to years of involuntary exile we completed a film script Virus, funded by the British Film Institute (BFI). In Virus we utilised William Gibson’s notion of virtual reality that uncannily pre-figured the Internet that at the time was still in gestation. The central character in Virus was a traditional healer who is called upon to treat a young man whose spirit has been sucked into virtual space via his computer. The saga that unfolds explores a clash between African and European values as the young man’s ancestors are summoned up to fight on his behalf against the shadowy figures of authority that police virtual space. The bilingual treatment draws on Ndebele and Zulu belief systems and traditional knowledge. The script also reflects Pitika’s fascination with the overlap between traditional knowledge and the concepts of modern physics from relativity to quantum theory.
The range of Pitika Ntuli’s activities and interests are reflected in his artwork. The culture and political experience of Southern Africa gives the work its most immediate voice and images. At the same time the concepts and forms in the work engage us in a debate about representation, and interrogates the relationship between art, culture and politics. His approach is both witty and deadly serious, and as an audience we are simultaneously entertained and challenged. We are offered the rare pleasure of an art that is both sensuous and conceptual.
Pitika Ntuli is eclectic in his deployment of media, materials and technique. Each media is explored for its own particular creative and formal properties. Yet in this rich diversity of the creative means of production there is a rigorous economy where less equals more!
The metal tube frames of builder’s wheelbarrows are transformed into dancing figures with a few twists and welds. Yet they remain unfixed, they retain their previous identity as wheelbarrows in their new role as expressive figures. Both building tools and bodies are instruments of labour. The heads and limbs of the figures are fashioned from building site salvage. Shovels, scaffold irons and piping are welded to the wheelbarrow frames to give each figure an individual pose, gesture and personality. The linear curves of the frames are automatically redefined by these simple additions, the same loop of metal is in one figure a buttock in the next a knee. By reversing the frame there is a change of gender. The sexual division of labour and the relationship between production and reproduction emerge from this dance of form and meaning. The result is extraordinarily eloquent assemblages configured from everyday objects and experience, the potential readings and meanings generated by these simple objects are limitless. Gathered together in the studio or gallery Pitika’s sculpted characters form a community, like the workmen on a building site or the other communities that Pitika has sought and developed.
In his carved wood sculptures we are confronted with apparently more traditional media. But after a closer look a discarded branch from a blighted Dutch elm carved with faces, limbs and chains offers its own complex tensions: African faces in English wood, humanity and nature, culture and ecology.
In three-dimensional work colour is an important element. The colour of the ready made objects is generated by their functional history – rust, cement, paint and oil are augmented with car touch up paint. These chance marks and colours ironically deliver a rich earth palette that suggests Africa rather than Europe.
In whatever medium Pitika works there is always an exploration of language. His work is a labyrinth of paradoxes, similes, visual and verbal puns. The rich tradition of metaphor and sign in African culture are used to challenge the pessimistic impasse of European art where the foregrounding of language has served to isolate art and the artist from the social.
I first came to Pitika’s work as a film maker and photographer. Scrutinising his pieces in the viewfinder frame, I was immediately aware of the cinematic qualities of his sculpture. A first glance at a Ntuli piece rewards the viewer with a strong image, a shift in the spectator’s point of view delivers a change in image and meaning and the start of a narrative sequence. This engagement with the point of view of spectator is both literal and metaphoric suggesting a further extension of meaning, punning on the physical and political position of the spectator.
Narrative sequences are evident in the work, stories are told and meanings suggested. But the viewer is never allowed the comfort of a statement with a simple truth. Any answers always turn into other questions.
Pitika’s grasp of the power of language is further displayed in his constant cross fertilisation of different disciplines and media. The distinction between poetry and sculpture is called into question. His words are full of images and his images are full of words. The discarded wreckage of our industrial society, fragments of wood, cars and advertising jingles that are the raw materials in Pitika’s work are simultaneously a metaphor for European culture, history, politics and language. It is all the more potent that these materials are deployed to create images that speak of Africa.
For almost a century, European artists have appropriated African images and forms, recognising their expressive and emotional power. Yet the intellectual and philosophical traditions of African art and culture are ignored. Pitika Ntuli’s work challenges the arrogance of European culture and stands it on its head. The dialectical themes inherent in Pitika Ntuli’s work reverberate long after leaving it. The tension between tradition and modernity, Africa and Europe, subjectivity and collective action are ultimately crucial to all our lives. This is what gives the work its compelling power and originality.
Return to Source
Pitika and other exiled friends returned in 1994 to contribute to the construction of a new South Africa, carrying fresh ideas denied to communities isolated and constricted by apartheid. A large hole was left behind, but also an enormous intellectual and cultural legacy in the organisations and networks that had been built through an active and very special engagement with London Life.
[i] Deleuze G & Foucault M. Intellectuals and Power: A conversation between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze in Foucault M, Language, counter-memory, practice, New York, Cornell University Press 1977
[ii] Mosquera G. The Marco Polo Syndrome in Third Text Reader on Art, Culture and Theory Continuum 2004
|1964||Teaching Certificate, Nazarene College, University of Botswana, Lesotho and|
Swaziland, Manzini, Swaziland
1984 Certificate in Industrial relations and Trade Union Studies, Middlesex
|1977||Master of Fine Arts, Pratt Institute, New York, USA|
Polytechnic, London, UK
|1985||Master of Fine Arts, Comparative Industrial Relations, Brunel University, London, London|
2013 Arts and Culture Trust – Lifetime Achievement Award
2012 City of Johannesburg – Living Legend
2014 – present Sculptor, Provocation for Reconciliation, Vlakplaas
2014 Fellow, Mapungubwe Institute
2012 – present Chair, Mbokodo Awards for Women in the Arts
2007 – present Artist and self-employed Consultant
2004 – 2006 Executive Director Organisational Development, UKZN
2003 Executive Dean of Students, UDW
2000 – 2002 Director, Sankofa Institute for the African Renaissance
1999 – 2000 Senior Fellow African Renaissance Institute (Continental Consultant)
1996 – 1998 Deputy Vice-Chancellor, UDW
1995 – 1996 Professor of Fine Arts and Art History, UDW
1994 – 1995 Senior Lecturer, Dept of Fine Art, Wits
1987 – 1994 Part Time Lecturer, History of Art and Cultural Studies
concurrently in the following institutions:
Camberwell College of Art
Central St. Martin’s College of Art
East London University
1985 – 1987 Artistic Director, Jenako Arts Community Arts Centre London, UK
1979 – 1985 Artist and Self Employed Consultant, UK
1977 Teacher, UN Refugee School, Swaziland
1972 -1974 Artist, Swaziland
1965 -1971 Teacher, Ministry of Education, Swaziland
NATIONAL COMMISSION AND TASK TEAM MEMBERSHIP
|2014 –||Board Member, National Commission on Moral Regeneration|
|2012 – 2013||Chair, Ministerial Advisory Project on African Languages in Higher Education|
|2007 – 2013||Chair, Ministerial Advisory Committee on Indigenous Knowledge Systems|
|2009 – 2010||Chair, Arts and Culture 2010 Ministerial Task Team|
|2004 – 2009||Commissioner, Commission on Traditional Leadership Disputes and Claims|
|2003||Member, Ministerial Task Team Traditional Leadership|
|2002||Member, Ministerial Project Committee National Curriculum Statement for Further Education and Training|
|2002||Member, Task Team for Indigenous Knowledge System|
|2002||Member, Task Team for Restoring Cultural – Social Fabric|
2008 – 2010 Board Member, National Film and Video Foundation
2006 Local Organising Committee 2006 World Congress of Sociologists
2003 Local Organising Committee 2003 Political Science World Congress
2001 Co-Director, Awesome Africa SA representatives of (Womad) World of Music, Art and Drama
1998 Chairperson of the Board of Trustees, Bartle Arts Trust
1995 Member, Planning Committee, 1995 Venice Biennale
1995 Convenor of Visual Arts Team, Arts Education Task Team, Gauteng
1992 – 1994 Artistic Director, Maluju Artists for Peace
1986 – 1994 Member of Africa Centre Gallery panel
1985 – 1992 Chairperson, Apples and Snakes International Poetry Collective
1985 – 1991 Co-ordinator, Jenako Black Writers Workshop
1982 – 1987 Chairperson, PITSO, South African Art and Cultural Association
- The Arts and National Development. Editor of forthcoming publication. MISTRA
- Scent of Invisible Footprints – the Sculpture of Pitika Ntuli. UNISA. September 2010
- Indigenous African Art & Healing: Forgotten Memories, Planting Memories of Tomorrow. In Indilinga. South Africa. 2009
- IKS & African Renaissance Laying the Foundation for a Creation of Counter Hegemonic Discourses in Towards A Philosophy of Articulation: Indigenous Knowledge & the Integration of Knowledge Systems. Ed Dr Catherine Odora- Hopper, New Africa Education Publisher. Cape Town. May 2001
- Participation and Culture in the Era of the African Renaissance: an Overview in “Participation, Culture and Globalisation”. Ed Georgy Szell, Dasarath Chetty & Alain Chouroque, Peter Lang. International Publishers. May 2001
- The Missing Link between Education and Culture: Are we still chasing Gods that are Not our own? in African Renaissance, The New Struggle. Ed Prof. W. M. Makgoba. 1999
- Speaking Truth to Power. Alteration Vol 6, no.1, 1999
- Who is Afraid of the African Renaissance? Indicator, The Barometer of Social Trends. Winter Vol. 15 No. 2 1998
- The Battle for South Africa’s Mind: In conversation. Africa World Review. Nov 1994, April 1995
- Return to the Source. Catalogue Essay, Angel Row Gallery. Nottingham, UK.1994
- Fragments from a Telescope: A Response to Albie Sachs. Third Text, No 23, 1993
- At the Nerve End of our Dream. Catalogue Poetics, Greenwich Citizens Gallery. 1990
- Models and Fabrications. Review Essay. Ed W Cobbett and R Cohen, PAL Platform, Vol. 1 No. 1 1989
- Open Veins Backbone of our Struggle. Catalogue Essay, 198 Gallery, London. 1989
- Orature, in Storms of the Heart. Ed K Owusu. Comedia Publishers. London. 1987
- Equality of Opportunity in the South African Agricultural Sector: ILO Egalite. 1984
- Background to Labour Law in South Africa, ILO Egalite. 1984
- Trial of Christopher Okigbo. Review Essay, Swaziland Today, Vol.11, No. 1, 1972
2014 “Marikana Fracture”, Richmond Booktown
2013 “From Marikana Hill to Constitutional Hill”, Constitutional Hill
2012 “Oliver and Adelaide Siyanikhumbula” Oliver Tambo Environmental Narrative and Education Centre, Wattville, Benoni
2011 “Scent of Invisible Footprints in Moments of Complexity” Unisa Gallery, Pretoria, Gauteng
2011 “Scent of Invisible Footprints eGagasini” Durban Art Gallery, Durban, South Africa
2010 “Scent of Invisible Footprints in Moments of Complexity” MuseuMAfricA, Johannesburg, South Africa
- “Monti-wa-Marumo” (Boomerang to the Source), Angel Row Art Gallery, Nottingham, UK
1992 “At the Nerve End of our Dream”, Greenwich Citizens Gallery, London, UK
1991 “Anthem for workers”, National Museum of Labour History, London, UK
1989 “Anthem for our Children”, 198 Gallery, London, UK
1986 “Crossing Borders into Hope” Munster, Dusseldorf, and Berlin, Germany
1986 “Airing Views”, Highbury Fields, London, UK
1983 “Mbongi Sabela, Africa Centre, London, UK
1982 Oval House, London, UK
1981 Grange Museum, Brent, London, UK
2015 The So-Called Emerging Black Artist
2014 Design City, Cape Town
2012 Den Haag – Contemporary South African Sculpture
2011/12 20Stellenbosch – 20 years of South African Sculpture
2011/12 Nirox SculpturePark, Summer 2011
- Marylands Studio, London, UK
- Third Havana Bienniel, Cuba
- “Heart Under South Africa”, Oval House, London, UK
- “Point of Arrival”, Woodlands Art Gallery, London, UK
- “Thusa”, Oval House, London, UK
- “Monti wa Marumo”, Brixton Art Gallery, London, UK
- Grange Museum of Labour History, London, UK
- “Black Artists for South Africa”, Upper Street Gallery, London, UK
- Air and Space Gallery, London, UK
- “Roots, Routes and Routs”, Black Art Gallery, London, UK
- Pentonville Gallery, London, UK
- Pentonville Gallery, London, UK
1995 “Taking Liberties: The Body Politic”, Africus, Johannesburg Biennale, SA (Co-
1995 “Siyawela;Loss and Liberation in South African Art”, Africa 95 Festival,
1988 “Inkaba Arts Festival; Contrast and Commonalities in Third World Arts”, London UK
1987 “Monti wa Marumo”, Brixton Art Gallery, London, UK
1986 “Pleasures and Pressures of Spirituality”, One Spirit Gallery, London, Uk
2013 City of Johannesburg, “Silverton Three Monument”
2012 Cosatu, Johannesburg, ‘Monument for the Workers’
- St Mary’s Catholic Church, Swaziland, 15 foot metal Christ
1974 Matsapa International Airport, Swaziland, 12 foot Stone Sculpture
- Swaziland Credit and Savings Bank, 15 foot Stone Mural
As of March 2014 Intoto Gallery in Melrose is showing a small selection of works.
PUBLIC COLLECTIONS OWNING WORKS
Durban Art Gallery, SA
Jazz Foundation, SA
Northern Foods, UK
ARTIST IN RESIDENCE
1992 Poetry: George Orwell Secondary School
1992 Poetry: Barking Primary School
1992 Sculpture: Westminster College
1990/91 Poetry: Thomas Buxton Junior School
1989 Painting and Sculpture: Highbury Grove Secondary School
1988 Sculpture, Poetry and Story Telling: Bluegate Fields Primary School
1986 Sculpture, Poetry and Story Telling : Sheen Mount Secondary School
FILM AND TELEVISION PROGRAMMES
Professor Pitika Ntuli is a regular commentator on cultural, social and economic issues for a wide range of TV and Radio stations.
A small selection of programmes about his work, or to which he has contributed includes:
2010 Arts Alive, MTN
2010 Good Morning Africa, MTN
2010 Weekend Live, SABC 2
2010 DTV, SABC 3
2010 Spirit Sunday, SABC 1
2010 50/50, SABC 2
2010 Imani, SABC 1
2008 – 2011 Weekly Column, Weekend Live, SABC 2
2008 Curious Culture, SABC 3
2008 Science and Religion, SABC 2
2008 Imani, SABC 1
2008 90 Years, Celebrating Madiba
2008 More Than Just a Game
2005 Heaven’s Herds
2004 SA’s 10th Anniversary
1998 “Off Stage”, SABC 1
1995 “Behind the Mask”, SABC 1
1994 BBC Late Show Review, BBC 2
1990 “The Great Picture Chase”, ITV, UK
1988 “Echoes of My Land”, ITV, UK
1987 “Home and Exile”, Performance Piece, Camberwell College of Art
1985 “Where Fragments are Universes”, British International Film School
1985 “L’Exil” Swedish TV
1984 “Exiles”, Channel Four TV, UK
1983 Roving Report, ITV, UK