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WALKING along High Street at Melrose Arch is a vision of more than just plush shops and fancy restaurants. Instead you’re hit by 11 artworks by Pitika Ntuli, with another 20 or so on display in Elegance jewellery shop at the end of the street.

Ntuli sculpts works in found objects – metal and plastic – and in wood, stone and bone. On High Street, you come across several upturned wheelbarrows, re-imagined with arms and faces; curvy pipe works with attached faces; several works with often tortured faces carved out of stone, with beaded eyes.

The exhibition is called “A journey worth contemplating”, in which the artist contemplates the idea that society is not going in the direction that he feels it should. “We should be moving towards the creative spirit, rather than chasing material things,” he says.

Inside the shop, large elephant or giraffe bones have been creatively reformed with images of faces, while female fertility figures have grown out of stone. “Sculpture to me is a battleground, a bullring; the creative act is a titanic battle between flesh and spirit. Each time a work of art is born the artist dies a little; a little death invokes a greater desire to live and thus creates another artwork,” he writes.

Ntuli is also a poet, and his poetry appears alongside his artworks in his glossy 200-page coffee table publication entitled Scent of Invisible Footprints: The Sculpture of Pitika Ntuli, published by Unisa Press, and on sale at Elegance. The book contains photographs of his works by the late John Hodgkiss, as well as essays, poems and drawings. Essays are by Ali Hlongwane, Yonah Seleti, James Swinson, Ari Sitas, Nalini Moodley, David Koloane and his wife, Antoinette Ntuli.

The artist has variously been a writer, academic, teacher, indigenous knowledge expert, and government ministerial adviser. “My art has its very roots in the bowels of exile with its tentativities measured against time lines and space over which I had no control. I began my art practice in exile infused by my African sensibilities.” 

InMay 2010 he held an exhibition at Museum Africa, entitled “Scent of invisible footprints – in moments of complexity”. The title referred to the 34 years he spent in exile, and that as a refugee “no-one notices who you are, you leave no footprints.

You are wanted and unwanted, always in between, feeling you are losing your identity”. It was his first exhibition since returning to South Africa in 1996.

Three major works of his are to be found in Swaziland, where he lived for 16 years, before he moved to England, where he stayed until his return. “For me art is one of those rare things necessary for someone’s self-fulfilment,” he said in a 2010 interview.

Ntuli has held nine solo exhibitions and participated in a dozen group exhibitions, mostly in London. He has curated several exhibitions, and was an artist in residence in the 1980s and ‘90s at schools and colleges in London. He was born in 1942 in Springs and grew up in Witbank in Mpumalanga.

He became a member of the PAC in his late teens, and went into exile in Swaziland in 1962, where he became involved in the local art scene, teaching and organising exhibitions. He was arrested in 1978 in Swaziland and spent a year on death row as a political prisoner. Once released, he fled to England.

The exhibition at Melrose Arch is expected to run until the end of June.

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