Lunga Ntila | GOD AMONG US!
“Jwale Modimo wa re: Sebaka ha se be teng mahareng a metsi, mme se arohanye metsi le metsi.”
– (Genese 1:6)
They had their reasons, but you can’t keep things like us folded for too long, the creases can’t hold. I know you’ve felt the seams bursting, too, how much it hurts, how terrifying it is because we know how terrifying we are, they must have folded us for a reason, we’re going to hurt the humans if we expand fully, we’re going to burn everyone we care about, we burn too bright, it’s not safe to exist, we’re dangerous, we’re dangerous, we’re dangerous!”
– Akwaeke Emezi, “Deity | Dear Eloghosa” Dear Senthuran
The image is a variegated feast of texture & ornament: of cloth, leather, petal, skin, metal and beads – at once stratified and superbly integrated. Both one and many. The figure’s face unfolds and gently explodes kaleidoscopically, a striking feature that comprises the bedrock of Lunga Ntila’s now unmistakable style. Notable here are the eyes, always challenging any conception of a unidirectional gaze, and of course, Ntila’s pointed use of colour. Red rises above the figure’s many-eyed, many-lipped, obsidian-charcoal face(s).
In Ntila’s newest body of work, GOD AMONG US!, redevades and embraces meaning just as quickly as her many-faced figures. We both know and do not know where to look and how to look, as confronted and invited by eyes as we are. One gets the impression that she is teaching us what we already know.
Ntila uses red’s evocative heat, ire and sensuality to hint at the erosion of a boundary between humanness and divinity. She plays with gender and sexuality as an invitation one moment (red sensual lips on masculine figures in Guards and March On) only to use the same image to signal a barrier to access(see: No Place For You). Here, red lips are as arresting and distinct as a STOP sign. And yet still, something of Ntila’s insistence on multiplicity invites the viewer further into the image. There may be no place for us, but we
are, nonetheless,(perhaps miraculously), still here.
Through her practice, integrating self-portraiture and collage, and her thematic preoccupations with identity and belonging, Lunga Ntila bends the world. Self-portraiture here serves as a counterweight to stubbornly persistent legacies and logics of imperial ethnographic image-making and photography. Through light and glass and blade and paper, Ntila sifts through the desert of the real to unmake and re-make, pointing our eyes both inwards and upwards in “celebration of the coming of a new spirit/guardian
What do we make then, of Ntila’s insistence that “we are god-like beings and that God can manifest in human form”? Who is the “we” signalled and spoken to, here?
If we are to look at this latest body of work for answers, we’re met with figures who are both rooted within and touched by history, community, femininity, barrenness, tradition, rage, duty, and nature. The work is anchored by the attire, symbology and cosmology of amaXhosa, but flirts with broader shared histories and little winks at popular culture, both in its figures’ physicality (see: Ready) and in the titles of the pieces themselves (like the aforementioned Beez in the Trap). Ntila places human figures in close relationship
with animals, insects, flora and fauna, flattening European binaries of self/other, man/nature.
Ntila’s work then, gives expression to the ideological, reverential and genealogical relationships that amaXhosa (and broader still, many African cultures) traditionally share with nature. Far from this focus floating in the chronically romanticised and mythologised “past”, Ntila asks us to look deeper, to look closer, and to look now. What we find then, is a vision of god that is both invented and self-evident. God is here, as we are here. Here-ness, presence, persistence, and survival as divine.
In this configuration, we are divine. Red-fleshed, red lipped,red-raged and reddened by time’s unspoken joys and untold cruelties. Embodied and im/mortal, gods among gods, and among us.
Text by Maneo Mohale