Asemahle Ntlonti: Vuthulula

Asemahle Ntlonti: Vuthulula - Omenka Online
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Running presently at Whatiftheworld is Vuthulula, Asemahle Ntlonti’s second solo exhibition with the gallery.

“Once you know how to make beads, you cannot keep it to yourself.”

This is the sentiment that underpins Asemahle Ntlonti’s exploration of beadwork in her latest exhibition, Vuthulula. Ntlonti’s collective approach to making reflects the isiXhosa culture of beading, where artistry is shared across generations. Women join in circles and meditatively string beads along thread to the pace of choral singing, conversations, and story-telling. In these circles, sonic resonance is used to track space and time, and collective power translates into this specialised hand craft.  Vuthulula is made in collaboration with MonkeyBiz beadwork artists, Mathapelo Ngaka, Lungiswa Sitshaya, Noxolo Dyosi, Asive Lempuku, Pumla Lempuku, Notsina Faniso, and Ntombentsha Billy.

Much like beaders, Ntlonti embraces knowledge sharing and a collective approach to making, rather than the isolated romanticism of being a singular artist-in-studio. For Ntlonti, beading is a way to trace and connect with her isiXhosa lineage. Beads hold an unfathomable spiritually and significance across Africa. One must be guided by consciousness and ancestry, Ntlonti explains, and permission must be granted to explore this medium. For this reason, Ntlonti presents Vuthulula as an offering of her journey: “of discovering where I am from, who I am, and who I was before”. This exploration is an extension of Ntlonti’s practice, whereby she investigates why so many black families have been, and continue to be, torn apart: whether geographically, economically, spiritually, or ideologically. An influence intrinsically linked to Nongqawuse’s failed prophecy, which led to a split of Xhosa people into Believers and Unbelievers, dividing families with devastating consequences.

Another motif Ntlonti highlights in Vuthulula, is ityali: a traditional, checkered felted blanket, or shawl. These are used in birth, in marriage, and in death; as a woman, ityali reflects your life cycle and initiation into womanhood. Their function is to fasten a baby on one’s back, to swaddle, and to wrap up and warm. This act of “wrapping up”, uquta, is used as an expression to keep something safe, secure, and sacred. Metaphorically, it translates as carrying your family, their history and their secrets. uQuta is to wrap up one’s home in a blanket. This is perceived to be one’s livelihood, and a way of locating oneself in the world. “I am, because my family is.” This expression translates to keeping one’s existence and the little one has safe and sacred, as it is very dangerous to share when you do not have a lot that has not been taken or tainted. Ntlonti responds to this sense of preserving life. Ntlonti further uses this blanket as a symbolic response to collective mourning, or inzilo.

Ntlonti personifies ityali through the ways in which these beaded blankets are displayed on metal frames, mimicked to look like large safety pins. Ntlonti visually references safety pins due to their association to utility, strength, and reliability. The saying “intsimbi ayigobi” speaks of strength, and is used to refer to a person being as unbendable as metal, and able to withstand any amount of weight or pressure. Safety pins never falter in their ability to bind together, and are always around when you need them. There is an element of ‘the love letter’ hosted by these small objects, often passed on between two women when a garment breaks. In the exhibition, these take on the roles of totemic saviours, used to pin ityali together so that they can be warn as shawl intended to provide warmth and security.

Safety pins are universal tools, with open associations to memory. Like ityali, the viewer can choose how they relate to this object. Ntlonti draws the viewer in, to intimately reflect on time, place, self, and the home from a place of nostalgia, and as means of finding belonging.

Text by Lindsey Raymond in collaboration with Asemahle Ntlonti.

Asemahle Ntlonti: Vuthulula runs until 28 August 2021 at Whatiftheworld.

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