In 3D: The Divinatory Dimensions Of Pitika Ntuli’s Art
By: Sope Maithufi
University of South Africa
Scent of Invisible Footprints – The Sculpture of Pitika Ntuli (Unisa Press, 2010) is an assemblage of select photo shots of Pitika Ntuli’s stone, bone, metal, bronze, and wooden sculptures produced over a 35 year period. In book form, the assortment spreads over several sections, most of which introduced by a narrative on Ntuli’s art, and interspersed by his poetry. Taken collectively, the units depict Ntuli’s growth in South Africa, his sojourn in exile and his subsequent homecoming. In their intertextual relations, these genres locate Ntuli within a terrain of classic black African art pioneered by insanusi, the diviner whose trade is ritual therapy. The proposition is that an alternative state of consciousness is called into being in order for this concert to be heard and seen carrying and expressing the mission of healing. The article’s first section concerns itself principally with mapping the moorings of this phenomenon. In this skeleton, the discussion relies on a theory of divination. This theory is introduced in the article’s introduction of the concepts of orature and of three dimensional arts. The outline of this theory is further elaborated upon in the synopsis of primary material, in the literature review and theory sections. The second and concluding part of the article teases out the textual details that Ntuli uses to populate his sculptures as instruments of divination. This final section also begins a dialogue between Ntuli’s sculptures, on the one hand, and his poetry, on the other hand, and also references this interchange as well as the biographical narratives on him in order to chart his genealogy of divination.
Keywords: African ritual, alternative sense of consicousness, divination, meta-physical conceit, ritual art, three-dimensional sculpture.
ANNUNCIATION THROUGH PERFORMANCE
Three years prior to Pitika Ntuli’s Scent of Invisible Footprints – The Sculpture of Pitika Ntuli (Unisa Press, 2010), Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (2007) makes salient points about Ntuli in his years in the London of the eighties working with the multinational multi-conventional group African Dawn. Ngũgĩ (2007) accurately remarks that Ntuli experiments with orature, a concept that Ngũgĩ says was popularised by Pio Zirimu in the early seventies to counter the tendency to see the arts communicated orally and received aurally as an inferior or lower rung in the development of literature. In Ngũgĩ’s view Ntuli conceives of orature as a therapeutic phenomenon synchronising all art forms. Notable in Ngũgĩ argument is that he faults Ntuli for not elaborating on how orature manifests itself in performance, that is, in a participatory site involving the performer and audience. Leaving aside the shortcoming that Ngũgĩ (2007) sees in Ntuli’s orature, a synoptic view of his catalogue reveals an intriguing entry into the utility value that he attaches to the phenomenon identified in this key concept. In his catalogue, Ntuli’s contemplation of having gone into exile for 32 years brings into distinct focus his African cultural roots. In this deliberation, Ntuli embarks on a project of self-actualisation that is illuminating for not being launched through the technological resources which translate spaces into electronic and digital sites. This is because, for Ntuli, self-reclamation is dependent upon him having beaten and carved materials of everyday life – metal, bronze, stone, bone and wood – into appearances of human heads.
Prominent in these representations are eyes outlines. In the words of Nalini Naidoo (Ntuli, 2010: 124) who pens one of the commentaries on Ntuli’s trade, Ntuli’s ‘figures… stare sombrely out through rusted eyes and awaken the dead and dying material of their construction. By implication, through sculpture, Ntuli draws the audience, usually the afflicted person, into a semblance of the original splendour of creation. Therefore, sculpting is a site of emotional and psychic healing (Ntuli, 2009: 138), especially for the subject whose calling to be a diviner manifests itself as psychical disorientation (Ntuli 141; Credo Mutwa 2003: 156). As Ntuli (2009: 139) observes, it is not possible to distinguish between the call for highly creative people to be artists or healers, on the one hand, from the fumbling of those who are emotionally and/or psychologically challenged, on the other hand. In the corresponding instances featuring the ailing and the candidate who are respectively being cured and apprenticed into being a diviner, the particular phenomenon appears to be about reenergising or re-orienting cognitive process, introduced in Ntuli’s sculpture in the metaphor of the eyes.
Following on the metaphor of opening eyes, the dispensing of therapy is reliant on egging the subject to narrate his/her predicaments in a creative (Ntuli, 2009: 145) and self-therapeutic discourse, just as it is the case when the neophyte is being apprenticed into a diviner. Confirming this African ritual space from which Ntuli (2010: 17) works, he argues that sculpting is the realm of the duality of the creative spirit. The subject whom Ntuli has in mind is one who, like him in exile, tries to ceaselessly negotiate the memories of home and exile. But it would not be far-fetched to infer that Ntuli has in mind also other forms of psychic alienation and that his prescription for them would not be radically different. Ntuli metaphorically expresses the African divinatory construction of estrangement when he says that, in his art, he touch[es] the pulsating heart of a spleen in the season of sacrifices.
The operative word here is ‘spleen’, the body organ that produces bile. In an African ritual space such as ukuthwasa where a novice is being initiated into isanusi, bile is central. In this inauguration, the neophyte is accredited with how to dispense resources to the people for them to enact and, as a result, to recuperate. As various scholars have argued (Feierman and Janzen, 1992; Janzen, 2000: 46; Ntuli, 2010: 97; Mutwa, 2003: 161), in terms of many Africa’s conceptions of spirituality, sickness is attributable to a subject’s disconnection with the geo-cosmic world.
The diviner’s primary obligation is thus to help the subject to find spiritual anchor or, put metaphorically, to see. Equally, during ukuthwasa, the neophyte is led to a psychically serene state, that is, to be perceptive. And the highlight of this unveiling is assumed to happen when the neophyte tastes bile-marinated venison. The bulk of the occasion is taken up in a social ceremony involving dance, music and poetry, always featuring the subject as the performance focal point, so as to engineer his/her rehabilitation into the religious and social conceptions of normality.
In Ntuli’s catalogue, the counter-positioning of sculpture, poetry and prose recalls dramaturge in which a diviner takes a subject on a journey of healing. First, almost every photographic display of each sculpture, appearing as the main insert on one page, is repeated in close shot on either the opposite or subsequent page(s), zooming closely on a key motif of this feature sculpture. At times, the close shot appears as the main frame while the image of the comprehensive sculpture is repeated in a minor supplement. Second, a poem appears on a separate frame on either the same page as, or opposite, that of the key insert. In noteworthy exceptions, instead of a close shot, a poem, enclosed in a little addendum, articulates the gist of the sculpture. Third and finally, there is a running commentary on virtually every page, elaborating upon Ntuli’s biography and, crucially, sometimes throwing insight into the African outlook that informs his art and practice.
The reader is expected to imagine poetry being chanted on stage, itself comprising sculpture as one of the key performance elements. The audience is also envisaged to conceive of these genres being made to remark on and expand on each other, and to understand the running commentary as a rhetorical elaboration. The triad is reminiscent of the prototypical divination site. In this theatre, the diviner, who harnesses rhetorical declamations in the presence of stage-like props such as dance, music (often performed by isanusi with his/her initiates) and sculpture, enchants the subject. In this theatre, insight/profundity is neither the exclusive product of the diviner nor of the client. Also, the epiphanic moment is neither predetermined nor prescribed and there for the taking.
What leads the subject to epiphanic experience is his/her orientation in a multisensory aesthetic encounter or, rephrased, giftedness in senses other than seeing, so that seeing translates into not seeing (Mary Nooter, 1993: 56) or into what Ben Okri defines as see[ing] what is there, and not there; hear[ing] what is said, and not said, or ‘a higher state of’ illumination’ (Gray, 2014: 49). As already stated, in Ntuli’s (2009: 139) terms, the diviner who is in the process of being apprenticed is in a comparable privileged space as the spiritually afflicted subject is talented in the wisdom that exists beyond the five senses of perception.
And this brings us to the rhythms and structural logic (Ntuli, 2009: 141) of Ntuli’s sculpture, that is, its three dimensionality. This type of art provides the subject the richness of experience. This is because, while two of the dimensions may seem to relate as binary opposites, the third angle defines them as a set of antimonies. This is by virtue of the fact that, the third, from which the first and second dimensions are visible albeit sometimes from polar ends, stands for alterity, gesturing towards something profound in the offing. The third dimension, to borrow Robert Farris Thompson (Baldwin et al., 1987: 190) phrasing, for instance, introduces a challenge about the impact of the indigenous African definitions of African art forms on the artists of the cities of Europe. For example, in northern Kongo, a mask with an incredibly elongated facial trait (in this case the nose) mirrors, in its very elongation, the seriousness, the elongation, of the issues activated or discussed in the presence of such a mask. Looking at Ntuli’s sculptures, this article cites as instances of this breakthrough the motif of plastic elongations, strongly indented body forms and the metaphor of the eyes. It is this third dimension which enunciates a flourish of nuance and speculation, as shown in various critical essays on how African art revolutionised modern European art, such as Robert Farris Thompson says is shown in Modigliani’s art.
This article arrives at the concept of the third dimension through the art’s allusions to the intellectual site of isanusi or diviner within which Ntuli locates himself. As already stated, this is a space that positions the diviner and the subject on one stage, generating consciousness of the material and immortal world and imagining synergies between both abodes. In this site, the bond between the diviner and the subject is sealed in photonic waves, which is a trope of fire. It is this beneficent tipping point which makes conceptions of subjectivities practical and forges an alliance against what they tend to either suppress or unfairly marginalise. The understanding is that, by virtue of being sealed in kinetic energy, these performances of bondedness are in tune with the broader cosmic phenomenon, which is understood as balance and counterpoint.
For Ntuli (2010: 17), or the sculptor in particular, the realm of the duality of the creative spirit is preceded by a solemn waiting period. It is in this era that Ntuli reveres nature and time as they singe off flesh from bones and corrode boulders – as in the production of dolomitic rock. It is also in this waiting period that Ntuli quietly celebrates life history, for example, that of the fallen ‘200 Year Old Elephant Tree’, its buried secrets, echoes of the sighs of herds of elephants as well as its ultimate demise through lighting strike (Ntuli, 2010: 53).
Thereafter, reversing the solidification process, as it were, Ntuli (2010: 25) shapes these final products of the seismic volcanic eruption such as granite stones and of the osmotic phenomenon that dries the mahogany tree into wood in the shapes of human heads. Ntuli comments that each material that he uses is shaped by the fluids that have passed through it. Metal must first be melted. In other words each material… retraces the journeys of its juices, to reflect them, to quote them… To sculpt therefore is, metaphorically, to revisit the original state of the material, to externalise its fluidity’. By implication, the subject’s reading of human lives into these sculptures breathes life or authenticity into them, and this drawsn him/her into a pact with isanusi – socially, existentially and philosophically – in fashioning alterities.
When we consider the subject’s close proximity with the sculptor cum diviner, there emerges a picture that transcends the assumption that they relate as binary opposites. It is as if a synthesis materialises out of the thesis – in the sense of affliction – and of the anti-thesis – in the sense of healing.
While the thesis and anti-thesis seem to be intimated as polar ends by the two dimensions of the three-dimensional sculpture, the apparent distinction is blurred as implied in the third dimension. And this collapsing of boundaries foregrounds the wellknown concept of divination. Defining divination, Philip Peek (1991: 195), for example, writes that it is a dynamic reassessment of customs and values in the phase of ever-changing world. In this delineation, focus on the dynamic constructs divination as an event that makes possible the apprehending and reifying of the unknowable, understood in terms of being post-rationalist, that is, participatory and reflexively performative (Patrick Curry, 2010: 7). This is a process central to which are configurations of symbols through whose order or pattern must be revealed (Peek, 1991: 202). The ritual of throwing bones, therefore, readily comes to mind when we speak of divination.
The practice of throwing bones is comparable to what Ntuli (2009: 143) terms the appearance of masks in the ritual with its often terrifying face. This is because the entrance elicits strong responses from the participants, possibly the diviner and his/her team of neophytes, and then passed on to the patient who is moved by this response to enter into a variety of emotions and psychic connections essential to healing. We are here also reminded of the peculiarity that is associated with the diviner; he/she captures his/her nightmares and visions in ritual art pieces such as dance and music [and sculpture]. The proposal is that the artist uses one or all these media to help the community [and the subject] to satisfy deeply rooted psychological needs. Marcelle Manley (1994: 28) defines these desires through two comparable theories: Lacan’s concept of the subconscious and Wole Soyinka’s notion of cosmic totality. Belief in the idea of cosmic totality – as in myth – may be elaborated and celebrated through ritual art – featuring sculpture or music or dance. The performance, Manley continues, bridges the subject-object dichotomies. Here, divination is considered to be the site of shamanic curing (Peek, 1991: 202) concerned with the integration of mind and body and of the mortal/immortal dialectic. This post-Cartesian perspective view[s]… bodies… as living agents possessed of intelligences, far exceeding our conscious awareness (Curry, 2010: 7). The angle also re-positions the bodies in relation to the socius and the cosmos. In short, this is the site of spirituality – neither carved in ontological stone, nor universals (Manley, 1994: 30).
In broaching the theme of divination through the concept of the third dimension, Ntuli remarkably contrasts with the South African creative writers whose fiction privileges the ideas of fire and gravity. This literature also contemplates the theme of the odyssey. For instance, upon his return from exile, the famous South African novelist, Mongane Wally Serote, became initiated into isanusi. His postexile fiction hence bears the signature of his trade as a diviner, particularly as highlighted in his exploration of the metaphor of fire in his two novels, Scatter the Ashes and Go (Ravan, 2002) and Rumours (Jacana Media, 2013). Drawing upon the classic Batswana ritual of mollo wa kgotla (fire of council), Serote visualises the kind of closure befitting the traumatized returning soldier of Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the African National Congress military wing. Serote’s thesis is basically that, in Batswana’s intellectualising of the death of the breadwinner or of one whose whereabouts are unknown or cannot be reified, fire reenergizes the family as a site of memory. But it is in Rumours where, in particular, Serote makes intriguing associations between fire and gravity, articulating the pair within the locus of shamanic healing. Also in Rumours, Serote overtly locates therapy within the poetic mode, identifying it as that which the subject invokes in order to define himself as part of the coordinated cosmic order – governed by gravity (Maithufi, 2015(a)). However, at no point does sculpture feature in Serote’s fiction, let alone in any means that suggests divination. This paucity is also evident in The Naked Song And Other Stories, Mandla Langa’s (David Philip, 1996) short story collection
which prescribes the shamanic ritual of i’Ngoma for the traumatised Umkhonto we Sizwe Odysseus. By contrast, Zakes Mda’s The Heart of Redness (2000) is replete with multi-medial texts that suggest divination. This novel deploys dance and the dream, yoking them together as a parallel of how people mediate plights. Here, dream and dance forge photonic links with marginalised and distressed peoples and open up sites for the narration of these connections in relation to the coordinated cosmic space.
In The Sculptors of Mapungubwe (2013), Mda shows the shamanic protagonists dancing themselves into the kind of alternatives that bring rain. And, in so doing, these main characters provoke corresponding performances among the populace, all of which translate into the pursuit of civil liberties. As discussed elsewhere, (Maithufi, 2015(b)), for instance, these reclamations are elaborated upon in watershed episodes where the people become entranced upon beholding the hero’s sculpture of a naked woman. All these texts mark a significant departure from the extensively researched David’s Story (2000), Zoë Wicomb’s novel central to which the home-returned ANC soldier is haunted by his complicity in this movement’s apparently brutal quelling of mutiny in the early 1980s in Quatro, Southern Angola. In contrast to this growing South African post-exile art, Ntuli’s Scent of Invisible Footprint (2010) treats the reader to an orchestration of multiple genres in the phenomenon reminiscent of orature (Ngugi, 2007: 5). In Ntuli’s catalogue, orature comprises the inter-phase between poetry, sculpture and prose on his philosophy. The triad constitutes an important motif and serves as a focalising agent that Ntuli uses to construct his readers, that is, along the dramaturge such as the diviner declaims when sending his/her clients on an alternative sense of consciousness. As shown in the next section, this article maps and discusses orature through the textual details that Ntuli uses to depict the insanusi/subject dialectic, and through how he elaborates upon it in the three-dimensional design of his sculpture. The discussion explores this site for a path-breaking hermeneutics, that is, one that the afflicted person utilises for rehabilitation into subjectivity as well as in relation with the cosmic entirety. Throughout this article, Ntuli’s experimentation with each medium – stone, bone, metal and wood – is mapped for how he carves paths towards self-reclamation through his usage of metaphysical conceit, or images that relate symmetrically. The same delineation process is undertaken with reference to Ntuli’s poetry, and with regard to how he translates it into sculpture, and the other way around. The proposition is that the nuances of Ntuli’s trade in divination surface from the act of sculpting and from initiating a counterpoint with poetry. The assumption is that this site of performance hails the subject/reader into an alternative state. Emphasis falls also on showing that, relying on a coordination of metaphysical conceit, enjambment and ellipsis, Ntuli highlights and conjures up self-actualisation in the terms that are diverse as anatomy, neuro-psychology, nuclear physics and genetics. The suggestion is that the arsenal of these figures of speech also depicts the insanusi and the subject’s positions to be relating dialectically or to be constantly energising each other, as per the idea of the third dimension.
THE THIRD DIMENSION: SYNTHETIC AND SELF-THERAPEUTIC
Scent of Invisible Footprints announces its treatise on divination prodigiously through bone sculptures. Bone is a common material and component of paraphernalia in Southern African people’s divination rites. As the medium of sculpture, such as it is the case with Ntuli’s select ones, bone intimates physiological or anatomical rationale for an argument on self-reclamation. The energy that makes possible the formation of bones speaks to the embryonic engineering of life into concrete material; as if in imitation of enjambment and of ellipsis, this is where life runs or translates into matter – or the hard material support structure known as the skeleton. This is why Ntuli’s engraving of his bone art with the image of a human face is telling of communion with the African vision of the cosmos, that is, continuity across conception, temporal life and post-temporal abode. This enunciation thus sets the blueprint for how to interpret the eyes outline on Ntuli’s wooden, metal and stone sculptures. During consultation, the sculpture’s eyes are a priori channels linking the subject with the diviner in a consciousness of the cosmic space. As discussed below, this site is symmetrical and coordinated. Self-actualisation, which is hence designed in the fact that divination assortment includes bones as the norm, is essentially forged for the subject who is in need of physio and clinical psycho-therapy – metaphorically speaking. The style and empowerment are quintessentially orature, and this is outlined in the dialogue that Ntuli initiates between his bone sculpture, ‘The Healer’s Dance’ (104-106), and its accompanying untitled poem:
Call and response
The healers dance us into the spirit
To heal our wounded psyches
We dance in ellipse round
Empty ovoid circuits of desire
For unity with ourselves
When the moon waxes and wanes like a lover
Seeking the beloved in a labyrinth of dreams! (Ntuli, 2010: 104)
The call and response style of the poem as well as the syncopated and circular dance motion – or dance in ellipse round – builds tension towards a trance. The duet creates a magnetic field between the healers and the subjects, the latter referred to in the first person plural pronouns, ‘we’ and ‘ourselves’. The electrical circuit, described in ‘we dance in ellipse round’ and ‘healers dance us into the spirit’, is also cathartic in effect. In other words, the verbal and dance performances, initiated by the ‘healers’, entrance the subjects into an alternative state of consciousness, and this is suggested in ‘to heal our wounded psyches’. In identifying and performing the object of desire in the lines, empty ovoid circuits of desire / for unity with ourselves, the subject claims and defines the self as if prior to the beginning of time, discourse and colonial alienation. In consequence, both the healers and the subjects enter into one ontological space. In the poem’s philosophy, shown in the moon’s respective nightly reflection of and daily deflection by the sun (in the concluding two lines), the synergy has a resonance of the galaxy.
In Ntuli’s translation of this metaphysical conceit – the moon’s respective reflection and deflection of the sun – into his bone sculpture, Amma’s Pelvis (Ntuli, 2010: 129), he launches a eulogy on genesis by drawing on human anatomy and orthopaedic sciences. In this sculpture, the pair of coxal bones, tapering from the lilac crest down the pubic bones to the pubic arch, recalls a guard of honour. When seen as part of the woman’s body, the image of the canal within the pelvic girdle intimates the revered birthing process. In short, the inner space hints at the descent of the child out of the womb – initiated by the invincible rhythm of growth and gravity. Ntuli elaborates on the nobility that he ostensibly attributes to the pelvic bones in the untitled poem that he produces opposite ‘The Separation of the Twins’, which is an overhead view of a sculpture done on one coxal bone, as opposed to the set of ‘Amma’s Pelvis’.
I love you with the power of undulating
Curves of bones
With the marrow of memory
Of our first kiss
Under a bridge too far (Ntuli, 2010: 124)
The title, ‘The Separation of the Twins’, implies a fundamental and unpleasant splintering, such as it can happen to the pelvic girdle bones, shown in the sculpture, ‘Amma’s Pelvis’. The elucidation is also highlighted in another sculpture, ‘The Healer’s Bone’, which likewise appears as art done on one coxal bone. The poem, a lamentation on unrequited love, also deploys conceit and enjambment. In short, in contrast to ‘Amma’s Pelvis’, ‘The Healer’s Bone’ is a metaphor of the incomplete insertion of human life into an advanced stage of the evolution of matter. This is the phase in which life is evident in the matter that has mass and occupies space at will in an upright position on two feet, that is, homo sapiens.
When imagined as part of divination paraphernalia, the one coxal bone sculpture,
‘The Separation of the Twins’ (Ntuli, 2010: 124), speaks to the subject’s or consultant’s quest for serenity.
In other words, the site of the one coxal bone enunciates a disconcerting incompleteness. It is assumed that, to the subject, the unpleasantness is upended in him/her taking a make-up journey. The incentive to undertake the trip is implied in what the poem calls ‘the power of undulating / Curves of bones’. In being undulating and curvy, the bone is a metonym of contrast. Reinforced by the enjambment, the metaphor recalls the inner core of bone material, which is marrow, introduced in line three, and described in turn as a component of memory. In this case, memory has everything to do with the repressed and probably the unacknowledged. It seems that, in his usage of the concept of marrow, Ntuli has in mind the idea of DNA material which genetic scientists depict in the image of a coil. The common understanding is that the helix comprises opposites. Thus, echoing the DNA’s constitution, the final two lines appear to be narrated from the first person perspective of the subject. As a monologue, these lines conjure up the divine out of the subject who suffers from a poor self-concept or trauma. And this is depicted in ‘I love you… / With the marrow of memory’, where the first and second person perspectives of ‘I’ and ‘you’ have only one and exclusive reference, that is, the self, with imperfections – as in DNA.
The self and the circular, emphasised by the alliterative ‘m’ sound in ‘marrow of memory’, are metaphors of the cyclical and post-temporal. Therefore, the origin, described as ‘memory’, restores the subject’s faith in the idea that s/he comprises negative and positive qualities. And this is intimated in the poet’s reference to the ‘waxing’ and ‘waning’ of the moon’. It seems that, reminiscent of the ‘round’ design of dance informing the untitled poem produced next to this sculpture, the gist of the choreography in the ‘Separation of Twins’ poem is to find inner peace.
It is also in this poem that the speaker, using the first person plural voice, ‘dance in ellipse round /… For unity with ourselves’. Ntuli (2010) expands on the theme of self-reclamation in his other bone sculptures such as ‘Sankofa’, ‘My Better Half’, ‘The Wounded Healer’, ‘My Eastern Ancestor’, ‘Divining Picasso’ and ‘Makhosi’. Also in all these sculptures, the theme of divination – as in the throwing of bones – is well pronounced, eulogising the insertion of spirit into matter. However, by contrast, Ntuli articulates this annunciation in terms of music in his other bone sculptures, ‘Giacometti’s Ribs’, ‘Bass Quartet’, ‘Healing Music of Giacometti’, ‘Nefertiti’s Strings’ and ‘Divining Picasso’. The respective untitled poems written next to the sculptures, ‘The Healing Music of Giacometti’ and ‘Giacometti’s Ribs’, describe the music being perceived as infrasonic, as opposed to the one heard aloud in the dramaturge constructed in the untitled poem written next to the sculpture, ‘The Separation of Bones’. The infrasonic in this case recalls Ben Okri’s memorable poetic condition the unheard melody of a life [or matter] returning to unmeasured silence (Gray, 2011: 50). Far from it being death, the return in the untitled poem that Ntuli has printed next to the sculpture, ‘The Healing Music of Giacometti’ (Ntuli, 2010: 103), is surrealist. The ‘return’ is also sonorous in the apparently architectural design of ‘The Healing Music of Giacometti’. The idea of resonance, stated as ‘echoes’ in the poem, aptly speaks to the faultless human acoustic organ, referred to as ‘eardrum’.
In this poem, the ‘eardrum’ is a theatre of the continuation of ecstasy, presented in the poem as ‘artistic revelry’, itself begun from physical sensation. The implication is that the musical note is quintessentially porous, because it permeates through, harmonises with and vibrates in a field, sending the subject into a trance – and sublimely within the cosmos. Enunciating the constituents of the spectrum in the sculpture, ‘Bass Quartet’ Ntuli (2010: 102), foregrounds the concept of ‘four-part’ harmony or ‘quartet’, as per this art’s title, and he also locates this work within the musical genre of jazz, as implied in ‘Bass’, which is the first component of this sculpture’s heading. As also illustrated in the cascading four-face upper body feature, the idea of jazz narratives along which Ntuli sets his sculpture, ‘Bass Quartet’, suggests a continuum – as in how one musical note, which modulates within a particular frequency, is picked up in corresponding ones, as if via enjambment and ellipsis.
In ‘Giacometti’s Ribs’, it seems that Ntuli argues that the said perpetuity culminates in a trance experience, what he cleverly describes as the ‘silent orgasms of sound’. This cadence resonates with the harmony and destiny depicted in the untitled poem produced next to ‘The Healer’s Dance’. This is where the ‘healers’ ‘dance’ the subjects ‘into the spirit’, ‘heal[ing]… wounded psyches’.
If the medium of the bone tunes Ntuli immediately to an eulogy of the annunciation of spirit into matter and of matter into infrasonic sound, respectively, that of wood seems to synchronise him with a vast and complex life world and histories. Especially when seen through Ntuli’s (2010: 53) prose account of how he harvested the ‘200 Year Old Elephant Tree’ that fell to lightning strike in Durban in 2000, the image of the human being within the huge space networked by elements appears to fill him with awe.
However, it is the kind of wonderment that links him through infrasound with other creatures’ lives as well as the ecosystem at large: ‘echoes of the sighs of herds of elephants as cows rest their weary limbs and scratch their tusks in relief’ against ‘centuries old, smooth… ravaged bark… refusing to reveal buried secrets of times long gone’ (53).
In his manipulation of wood, Ntuli’s sensitivity to what he calls the silent narratives behind the ecosystem makes him experiment with social realism. However, it is the kind of social realism in which the diviner is heard expressing contrition for his unwitting collusion in the epistemic violence of the discourse of African national consciousness. The fracture of the speaking voice is thus self-willed, as opposed to surfacing through dramatic irony. The rationale behind this seeming self-immolation is remarkable. Reminiscent of the Chief of ‘Town B’ in Ben Okri’s
celebrated novel, Dangerous Love (1996), Ntuli appears in his wood sculptures as a shamanic figure, lamenting the apparent eliding of an important historical narrative
in the evolution of the anti-colonial struggle. Thus, streaming to the subject’s consciousness, Ntuli gives vent to bitterness as if he is a subject or victim in the presence of the culprit, that is, the nationalitarian. In a three dimensional mode, Ntuli hence ushers in the national body politic in its painful and bungling evolution.
As explicitly and prominently shown in the sculpture titled ‘Anatomy of Struggle’ (Ntuli, 2010: 18), Steve Biko, one of the historic and key protagonists of the Black Consciousness philosophy movement in South Africa, is the metonym of the narratives’ explosion. The outbreak recalls the one symbolised in Ntuli’s imagining of the biography of the ‘200 Year Old Elephant Tree’ (53), as already noted. Ntuli’s rationale for foregrounding the image of Biko is not hard to figure out; just over five decades after Biko’s death at the hands of apartheid police in 1977 and the seeming ascendancy of the African National Congress Freedom Charter, Biko and Black Consciousness philosophy rarely feature in the new South Africa’s public political landscape with any significance. As if unwittingly redressing this apparent amnesia, Ntuli makes Biko uncannily inform the representation of the opposition to the dialectic of the perpetuation of white racial dominance in the new South Africa. Put metaphorically, Biko becomes the skeleton in the apparent rejuvenation of the struggle’s body anatomy, giving it capacity for mobility.
In Ntuli’s poetic construction of the specifics of Biko’s reappearance in the untitled poem printed on the left bottom of his sculpture titled ‘Anatomy of Struggle’ (2010: 18), a ‘continuous chain reaction of escalating resistance’ (19) is perceived to be existing from beholding the representation of the foetus of Steve Biko. In the sculpture, Biko’s corpse is linked to his fully intact interred remains, and also joined to his air-hoisted fist. As it were, Biko germinates and shoots above the ground in the form of a fist. Both corpse and foetus are shown having well-developed eyes, bringing to life the inertness of the material used to make the sculpture. Redolent of the ‘silent orgasms of sound’ which depict the tranceinducing effect of ‘Giacometti’s Ribs’, in gestation and in death, Biko’s eyes – and black consciousness itself – conjure up a Dionysian hermeneutics where the economically powerless maintain eye contact, as opposed to dropping it in the presence of the dominant order. This time, however, the hegemonic discourse is ostensibly post-nationalist. And in underscoring the willed ambience of totality, of the struggle being continued, a haiku, instead of a close shot of the ‘Anatomy of Struggle’ sculpture, appears in a small frame at the right bottom of the opposite page. Ostensibly chanted by the diviner in the presence of the subject who is distraught with South Africa’s slide into a post-colony, the poem delivers the invocation through metaphysical conceit and a skilful balance of ellipsis and running-on-lines:
Biko reborn in the vibrant foetus of
A continuous chain reaction of escalating resistance
Signalling the impossibility of defeat
Presaging the birth of a new nation (Ntuli, 2010: 19)
To rephrase the Senegalese sculptor, Iba N’Diaye (Baldwin et al., 1987: 175), in
being quasi-surreal, the geometric or architectural composition of ‘Anatomy of
Struggle’ is a site of fragility. The tenuousness resonates also in the untitled
poem appearing next to the photo of the sculpture, ‘Balance of Power’ (Ntuli,
The subtext of this poem seems be the history of how the African National Congress let down those activists who joined it in exile – indeed inspired by Biko and his philosophy – during the height of, as well as consequent upon the Soweto 1976 revolts. Ntuli’s poetic description of these new recruits is saturated with pain, because he acknowledges their traumatic experiences in the lines, ‘Balancing memories of gunshots and teargas / Against dustbin lids’. Ntuli’s sense of regret is poignant, because, seemingly as an ordinary and non-office bearing ANC member who had already left South Africa prior to 1976, he appears to have been a helpless witness during the ANC’s betrayal of these new recruits, such as it is alleged to have happened in Quatro, Southern Angola, in the early 1980s (Trewela, 2009; Mbokodo and Bernard, 1994).
They came in waves
On that June 16
The children of blood
Across borders of death
Balancing memories of gunshots and teargas
Against dustbin lids
From death dances pursuing scents
Of freedom in foreign terrains
Balancing on our shoulders. (Ntuli, 2010: 39).
The concluding line, ‘Balancing on our shoulders’, highlights precariousness just as it is implied in the architectural nature of the sculpture. The delicateness is brought home in heartrending terms from different angles. In the first instance, the new recruits are seen as children, and then merely recalled as being traumatised, and nothing more. In the second case, Ntuli acknowledges that the freedom that the new recruits were pursuing remained empty rhetoric, that is, as intangible and elusive as scents. And this criticism is depicted in the sculpture of the tripod showing the recruits being hoisted. This is why Ntuli’s phrase, ‘in foreign terrains’, reads as being self-reflexive. However, it is the kind of self-reflection in which Ntuli – the diviner, sculptor and poet – has streamed to the consciousness of the afflicted subject. In this new position, he appears as a spokesperson, thawing and showing remorse in creative terms.
In the mahogany wooden text of another sculpture, ‘Public Imperialism Rising’ (Ntuli, 2010: 32), the seeming rite of passage from the dominant order’s voice to the violated subject’s teems with satire. In this sculpture, the narrative perspective appears to be that of the nationalist in power, publicly and brazenly exhibiting his authority. While the image of the upper body comprises two likenesses of arms in between of which is the structure of the head, that of the lower body is dominated by erect male genitalia extending upwards as if in rivalry with the upper limbs, shown reaching almost to the height of and in competition with the head. The energy that induces elongation and erection is only temporary. And while sexual identity is an irreplaceable aspect of human physiology, hypermasculinity, to rephrase N’Diaye (Baldwyn et al., 1987: 175), is ‘fragile and menace[d]… with dissolution’.
Ntuli’s critique of the hyper-masculinist discourse of the African National Congress is also obvious in his ‘Emergence’ and ‘Triangular Trade’ (2010: 22), sculptures in which facial images appear safely held up on wooden blocks. The poem that Ntuli writes next to his sculpture, ‘Emergence’, depicts a sense of the ‘begin[ning] of a new era’ and ‘new dreams’. By contrast, the ending of this poem, seemingly written on the left side of his other sculpture, ‘Triangular Trade’, acknowledges the history of ‘[b]etrayal’ by alluding to how black consciousness ostensibly became sacrificed at the altar of the ANC’s ideology of the Freedom Charter. In setting the tone for the articulation of this different narrative, Ntuli laments the decline of liberation into neo-colonialism in the one-word and penultimate line, ‘Betrayed’, and then goes on to conjure up the second revolution in the last line.
Kept alive in chains
Triggering chain reactions of memories
Of the native land
Resplendent in colour and laughter
Heroic slaves are born (Ntuli, 2010: 22)
In Ntuli’s stone sculptural vision of the second revolution, the ideas of therapy and genesis link up. The inference is that, the beginning, understood as the
heating up of liquid into matter and the subsequent separation of the world into the aquatic and the terrestrial, is the foundation of the physical structure of the universe. But Ntuli appears to be using the concept of genesis as a metaphor for the artistic and healing moment as well. Be it dance (as shown in the untitled poem accompanying his sculpture, ‘The Healer’s Dance’, sculpting or art makes possible the synchronising of dopamine and serotonin, that is, the neurotransmitters that incline the human physiology’s respective lapses into depression and happiness. The proposition is that imaginative or artistic discourse reifies the afflicted subject’s tuning into time as manifested in, for example, music (such as in Nefertiti’s Strings’ and in Giacometti’s Ribs’), dance and a sense of social bondedness. As already stated earlier, Ntuli (138) remarks that art is for the artist a site of self-healing, and this is clearly demonstrated in the first person plural narrative voice of the poem, ‘Burdens of the Past’, where the past, described through an oxymoron as the uncanny, is appropriated in a narrative that builds up tension to a climax:
‘Burdens of the Past’
We carry burdens of our past
Memories of fire and whirlwinds
We exorcise the demons with angle grinders
Devouring stone to create
New dreams of the nation and rainbow
Each line a dream
Each from a manifesto of hope! (42)
In this poem, the past is a repository of baggage, but also of innovation. In order to be cured, the subject is expected to engage in an artistic enterprise that leads up to a trance. In contrast to Ntuli’s mahogany wooden art, his granite representation of the site of the interphase between the afflicted and healer’s positions in ‘The Burden of the past’ (Ntuli, 2010: 42) resembles the figure of a standing mother holding her evidently tall child against her upper body. Also in this depiction, the mother supports her baby’s legs from falling with her other hand.
In another granite sculpture, ‘Mother and child’, the mother, who is apparently seated with her legs sprawled forward, freely balances her child against her upper frontal body. In both art works, the mother’s hand that holds the baby in position appears also as one key dimension of the baby’s body image. As it were, nurture effortlessly goes back to nature, that is, when mother and child
were connected by the umbilical cord, engineering the annunciation of spirit into flesh, as also remarked earlier with reference to the sculpture, ‘Amma’s Pelvis’. The cradle of this beginning, articulated in the lines, ‘When stones were still soft as butter / And rivers flowed upstream’, is a mere agent that has given cue to the primal creative moment. On its own, the implied big bang moment is the harbinger of the force of gravity – indeed, time and space. Gravity is a metonym of equity and harmony. Implicitly deploying this definition of gravity, Ntuli constructs motherhood also a site of creation. And this is stated in the apparent feminist self-eulogy of the poem as well as in the ellipsis that divides these two lines: ‘We carry burdens of our past / Memories of fire and whirlwinds’ (Ntuli, 2010: 42).
The fiery explosion which led to the creation of rocks or hard material earth and planets also initiated time and the disjuncture integral to the orderly cosmic space. Also, as a metonym of gravity, the discrepancies that gravity makes possible within space trigger wind phenomena. In feminist overtones in the same poem (line 3), Ntuli remarks that, as a user of ‘angle grinders’ (or as a sculptor), he is an agent of his own re-creation. In this self-construction, the performer induces a balance between his/her neurotransmitters, as it is the case in the dance enterprise in ‘The Healer’s Dance’ poem. By contrast, in the untitled poem produced next to an equally geometric sculpture, ‘Germinal 1’, Ntuli depicts the willed union with the cosmos at large in terms of entranced dance performance:
Spiralling into existence in a welter of blows
In our land
We begin tentatively to find our feet
Our toes caress the delicate soil of our ancestors
Complying with the weight of our dreams (Ntuli, 2010: 74).
As it were, the subject, who in this case has the persona of one who is in a trance, re-orients him/herself within the mortal world in spatio-temporal terms, that is, animated spirals of dance. In this engagement, the speaker says, the performer ratifies union with the spiritual world, understood as ancestral and dreamy. This liminal space is fundamentally about self-reclamation, as shown also in the lament and quest narratives in the untitled poem produced next to the dolomite sculpture, ‘Introspection’ (Ntuli, 2010: 64):
We have lost the traces of footprints
We seek them deep into our memories
Scanning ideas and teasing emotions
In the inner recesses of our being
Inside the labyrinths of our minds (Ntuli, 2010: 65).
The irony is that, as in ‘The Healer’s Dance’ poem (Ntuli, 2010: 124), the solution to the sense of loss is found and articulated within the quest venture. The focal point of the resolution appears to be lodged deep in the unconscious, which is also the seat of memory, defined earlier as the blueprint of contrast and as a metonym of cosmic harmony. By contrast, the geometric depiction of reclamation in the sculpture, ‘Germinal 1’ (Ntuli, 2010: 74), upends the likeness of the precariousness such as shown in the image of trance in the mentioned poem. The same sense of resolution is suggested in the concentric ‘The Mathematician’ (49). This is because the solution to any sense of perceived bewilderment is resolved by tracing all lines to the central points. The close shot of ‘Germinal 1’, which foregrounds the representation of a woman’s left breast seemingly held in shape by a sinewy arm muscle, emphasises this sense of security. However, this Negritudinist vein is visible only in those poems that Ntuli produces next to his quartz, dolorite (see ‘Nzinga, the Warrior Queen’) and granite sculptures, and not his dolomitic ones. It seems that the rationale behind this disparity is that, being chemically reactive, dolomite continually corrodes.
In Ntuli’s metal sculptures, the second revolution – which is about the subject’s reconnecting with and simulating of genesis – is impeded by post-apartheid. For Ntuli, this era has modulated into a cold capitalist, industrial and neo-colonial wasteland. As it were, in these metal sculptures, Ntuli breathes life and human physiology into these examples of discarded and seemingly primitive industrial instruments: wheelbarrow, hoe, spade, dustbin lid, drum, diff, exhaust pipes, pressure plate, cistern top, pinion, etc. Quite often, these representations are remarkable for foregrounding what he calls an ‘insurrection’, depicted in images of an unflinching sense of sight, smell, taste and hearing (Ntuli, 2010) These representations are obvious, for instance, where the wheelbarrow tray – image of the human body – stands upright on its handles, with each welded on a pedestal, itself made out of a hand hoe. The head, which resembles that of a human being, is made out of a spade, and, in other metal sculptures, of a pinion. Therefore, in these sculptures, Ntuli valorises the concept of balance and the ability to occupy space in movement, reminiscent of his eulogy of creation in ‘Amma’s Pelvis’.
When these metal sculptures are seen as divination paraphernalia, the implications for the consultant are remarkable; for, the fact of being an audience constructs him/her into a former employee – now retrenched for not being skilled on information technology. This former worker’s human dignity is restored in the imprints of the human faces that are engraved on this assortment.
Aiding this self-assertion are praise poems. These eulogies, delivered in free verse from the first person perspective and in enjambments, appear next to each of these sculptures. Throughout ‘Scent of Invisible Footprint’, ‘the creative act is a Titanic battle between flesh and spirit. Each work is a diversion of the flesh, the body’ (Ntuli, 2010: 20). Ntuli, the sculptor cum poet-diviner, uses art to re-align himself with the cosmic harmony that he sees as being signposted by the ecosystem and gravity, and also attempts to help the afflicted subject to achieve the same outcome. Though invigorated by socio-political alienation, the genesis of this self-reconstruction is the sense of schizophrenic and sometimes seasonal predisposition, occasioned by imbalance in the subject’s body neurotransmitters. Creativity is continued in the interplay that Ntuli engages between poetry and sculpture, especially in how he sets the interaction within the ritual site of therapy occasioned by the diviner or isanusi and the subject. The discussion has also demonstrated that what glues this duet together are photonic waves generated through art, overt in dance and music. The article’s attempt has been to show that these performance genres articulate the power to interpellate the subject through the triad of enjambment, ellipsis and metaphysical conceit. It is in this African divination location that, as a norm, the diviner eggs the subject to ‘see’ better – or to enter an alternative state of consciousness – and to artistically imagine him/herself in synch with fundamental principles of creation as implied in various disciplines such as engineering, African conceptions of spirituality, genetics and human anatomy, for instance. As shown in the discussion of the significance of the mediums through which Ntuli enables divination, he nuances his conception or vision of harmony and reclamation accordingly. Taken collectively, these subtleties depict actualisation poetically. As already demonstrated, in bone sculpture, Ntuli celebrates the insertion of spirit into matter, while in his wooden art, he valorises the cadence of matter into the infrasonic. All these modulations are permeated by the concept of the dispersal of light energy or gravity. However, it is in his manipulation of rock that Ntuli elaborates on the concept of light or fire. Here, fire, as in the big bang moment, creates space, universe and gravity. The connection between genesis and art, it seems Ntuli argues, is that they are metaphors of the balancing of the
neurotransmitters. The article has endeavoured to show that the metonym of the synthesis is the three-dimensional sculpture, and also that it is a poetic elaboration upon the concept of ‘orature’.
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