Nandipha Mntambo at Michael Stevenson Gallery
By Tavish McIntosh
The sumptuous Indlovukati, a ghostly white kneeling female torso, greets visitors as they step into the gallery. The figure is suspended vertically so that it appears about to ascend the wall. It is moulded from Nandipha Mntambo's characteristic medium, cowhide. But for Mntambo, who has hitherto only used dark cowhides, this light figure is indicative of a new direction. Her figures have become more fluid and mutable and therefore open to more varied readings. The Swazi exhibition title 'Ingabisa' (young girl's coming of age) is unexpectedly appropriate as we see her growing aesthetic acumen.
Mntambo's idiosyncratic aesthetic of moulded cowhides has fascinated viewers and critics alike, but it is not without its inherent difficulties. Practical problems involve the difficulty of moulding the hide into complex shapes restricting her to loosely evocative forms. But it is the conceptual challenges that really reveal Mntambo's risky undertaking. The conflation of cowhide and female forms risks entrenching the idea of woman as passive, reproductive commodity. It has also tied Mntambo to readings of her work purely in terms of the traditions of our traditionally agrarian society - ilobola being the overriding metaphor employed.
Essentialism has proved the bane of feminist art. By reclaiming the idea that women are essentially different from men, linked with excessive nature and the body, feminists risked entrenching these hierarchical differences. By conflating women and cows, fixing the cowhide into the human form, Mntambo runs the gauntlet of essentialist readings. She occupies the philosophical binaries that have locked women into a relationship with carnality. But by hyperbolically taking on these associations, her work deflates their power. Her sculptures invoke an overtly carnal femininity that is so over-the-top, rendering the underlying stereotypes of animality ineffectual.
Her use of the cowhide is however not a seamless appropriation. The hides retain their hirsute state and their history written in scars, scratches and scabs. Mntambo also removes the formational cast, evacuating the previously occupied space and merely alluding to, touching upon an absent body. The space variously vacated by the cow's innards and the female torso is framed by the hide whose excessive materiality throws into sharp relief the vulnerability of the absent form.
The artist, who is highly conscious of the politics of appropriation - reiteratively using only her own body or that of her mother - has little problem using the hides of the bovine creature to shape them over her absent form. Her work has hitherto confined itself to darker hides, invoking the black body, however with works like Indlovukati Mntambo invokes the invisible power of whiteness. Against the white walls, the figure is more ghostly and ephemeral than her others, and gestures towards a representational gap in South Africa - the invisibility of the female genealogy. Indlovukati (meaning female elephant or matriarch in Swazi) is more than just a comment on racial identity, it is an indictment of the unspoken order of patriarchy.
She renegotiates the politics of visibility, staking a claim whilst evading the fixity of visibility. The absence invoked by the hide is crucial for its conceptual power. Her sculptures oscillate between being the skin of the absent woman and the flowing apparel. Both naked and clothed, the figure critically latches femininity onto the form, questioning the boundaries between performing femininity and being female.
Walking outside the vast windows of Michael Stevenson Gallery, Mntambo's Lelive Lami figure displays its white pulpy underside. From the exterior of the gallery, one is given an explicit insight into the negative space framed by the hide. Inside the gallery, Lelive Lami displays only its hirsute side and becomes a multi-coloured, fur extravaganza with a plethora of tails forming a train for the figure. Mntambo highlights a tension between absence and material presence by forcing the viewer to move in order to access the various aspects. Mntambo asks questions about the social processes that render a body conceptually invisible, accessible only through the remnants, the traces left behind.
Covertly Mntambo invites the viewer into the affective evacuated space. The Fighters most explicitly asks for this intimate engagement. The two hides, one light brown and one dark brown, face off, furry side of the hides inwards. The viewer is left on the outside of this confrontation, acutely aware of the small, tense space in-between the figures. Unless one inserts oneself into the negative space shaped by the evacuated hide - becoming the fighter - or into the awkwardly narrow space in-between the figures - intervening in the fight - the viewer is frustrated by their own inability to see the glossy brown fur of either pelt.
Each viewing angle creates a hierarchy, privileging the view of one figure over the other. The Fighters disallows an objective viewer, implicating the viewer in the dialogical tension between the pair. This strategy is reminiscent of Marina Abramovic and Ulay's gallery intervention Imponderabilia where they blocked the gallery entrance with their unclothed bodies, forcing viewers to squeeze between them in order to enter the gallery. Mntambo's intervention is more subtle and allusive, but nonetheless contains the same power to dislodge a fixed, static gaze.
Silent Embrace, a lineup of photographic prints, pushes her work from the material to the graphic. The line up is composed of 11 digital prints of her characteristic pelts, all moulded on a cast of her mother's body. The dark hirsute figures are starkly outlined against a white background. In this, the pieces lose some of their evocative quality. The strength of Mntambo's work has always been its allusive invocation of absence and emptiness that contrasts so strangely with the materiality of the furry hide. Mntambo's oeuvre is however limited by this modus operandi, and certainly commercial gains are compromised by the three-dimensional forms. Is Silent Embrace the result of commercial necessity or is it the result of a frustration with the limitations of her three-dimensional work? In either case, Mntambo needs to explore ways to bring to this medium something of the affective power of her hide work.
Glancing through the latest Art South Africa articles on 'The Animal in Art' I was surprised to see no reference to this nascent artist. Nandipha Mntambo's technique and conceptual underpinning seems remarkably apt for the topic. Mntambo is asserting a direct relationship between the female body and that of the cow, riskily conjoining these terms into a highly loaded and volatile relationship. The volatility of this link is countered by her affective invocation of absence and disappearance, of the power of invisibility.
Opens: August 16
Closes: September 15