A rich life of a man behind the big toys

Johannesburg- Pitika Ntuli is an academic, sculptor, poet, and writer who has contributed immensely to the political and artistic discourse of South Africa before and after spending 32 years in exile.

Even in 2021, the man whose career spans over a few decades and continents is still as busy as he was when lecturing abroad decades ago.

A few months ago he won a Global Fine Art Award in Paris, adding another accolade to an already impressive CV. Ntuli’s Azibuyele Emasisweni – an online exhibition of the bone sculptures hosted by Melrose Gallery – won the You-2 Award.

After days of trying to pin him down, I finally had a chance to speak to the world-renowned professor who works across a range of materials such as metal, granite, bone, and “found material”, which he chooses based on what he is feeling at the time.

I spent some time getting to know the icon’s lifestyle while he visited his home in Underberg and was fascinated by such a rich life. A life filled with the pain of being jailed in Swaziland until international pressure secured his release into exile, which saw him teach in London and studying in America, and a life filled with family and accolades.

What would you say your occupation is to a six-year-old?

I make toys, big toys people cannot carry. This reminded me of reading about how as a traditional healer his uncle initiated him and asked him to sit and watch a dead tree until it spoke to him. The tree remained silent until he imagined how it would look if it were a human being. That’s when he saw the branches and his uncle confirmed that the tree had spoken to him.

You were in solitary confinement for a year in Swaziland before being assisted by the international community and settling in England. What was that year like?

Absolutely brilliantly horrible. I had no access to papers or visitors. I had not been charged and indicted for treason, so it was a terrifying experience, but I refused to be idle and decided to grow my nails.

I carved soap to make chess pieces. I compressed bread and made figures while also creating poetry.

Making art with toilet paper also maintained my sanity. From creating figurines and remembering and dissecting poetry, I kept myself sane.

DIEPKLOOF, SOUTH AFRICA – JANUARY 27: Professor Pitika Ntuli stands by the statue of the ‘Silverton Three’ on January 27, 2013 in Diepkloof, South Africa. A monument celebrating the lives of three struggle heroes; Madela Makhubo, Steven Mafoko and Wilfred Madela, was unveiled over the weekend. In 1980, these men, referred to as the ‘Silverton Three’, embarked on a mission to attack a petrol depot in Pretoria but were shot by the police before they could get reach their destination. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Bafana Mahlangu)

How do you unwind when you are not advising ministers or being a traditional healer or sculptor or writing poems?

I don’t unwind because I’m driven by poetry. The mind is always researching to link the different parts of me.

We know that your work of art can be found in different parts of the world. What’s the most unexpected place to find your art?

My backyard is populated with art. I have a library of books. My home is a cathedral of creativity. My home is my shrine, my sacred place. I’ve earthed myself to ancestors and my home is that place.

What music do you enjoy listening to?

I enjoy indigenous music, jazz, and music in general. I thoroughly love listening to women in the villages singing and of course the penny-whistle

Do you have a favourite sport you enjoy?

Tennis and track are my favourites. I enjoy the sportsmen’s passion.

Covid has affected the world. How has it changed your life?

I have a home in Underburg, KwaZulu-Natal, where I have been forced to stay during lockdown. This quiet place has been excellent for reflection. So, I’ve spent most of my time in my sanctuary.

What tips would you give a young sculpture?

Don’t take yourself seriously and be true to yourself and your vision. It’s your uniqueness that allows you to create, so be grounded in your spirituality.

Azibuyele Emasisweni exhibition sculpture

Your work of art is incredible, what was your most expensive piece and how much did it go for?

Oh, that’s a trade secret, but it went for millions because of the materials I use like granite and the cost of transportation.

You have taught at universities abroad and in South Africa. Which was your worst institution to teach at and why?

It was Wits University because of the politics, so I left and went to the University of Durban Westville to find my spirit.

Does your art have a signature style?

The noses of my pieces have a line, like a bridge from the earth to the heavens.

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