by Tavish McIntosh (September 2008)
As a youngster, Nandipha Mntambo wanted to become a forensic pathologist. Although that career never materialised, Mntambo brings to artmaking a focus on the organic nature of identity. Her interest is not of the test-tube variety, but instead the materiality of the variously lived and vacated body fascinates her.
Her breakthrough came in 2004 with Idle where she began moulding raw cowhides onto plaster casts of shop-dummy's legs. Mntambo converted a small, out-of-the-way studio at Michaelis into her 'laboratory' and started to develop her characteristic modus operandi. The original shop-dummy was soon replaced with plaster casts of her own body and those around her. These moulds would be enveloped by the still-malleable cowhide after its 'curative' chemical immersion. Once the cowhide was adequately moulded into shape, the body-cast was replaced with resin allowing the hide to form an empty floating bodily receptacle that subtly echoes the shape of the absent figure.
It is these strangely evocative hides and the garments that are sewn out of them that make up the bulk of Mntambo's work, and which form the basis for her more recent forays into photography and video. The skin of the cow is often also used as a covering for human bodies, thus the sculptures - without their bovine filling - oscillate between evoking the garments that can be shod at will and the bodies that once contained living, breathing, masticating beings with four stomachs.
Mntambo embraces this ambiguity, referring to the dresses of the Herero women in Iqaba Lami and elaborate couture trains with Lelive Lami. The glossy fur of the hides is alluring, but their undersides betray their traumatically organic origins. Mntambo plays with the tension between the sightly and the unsightly, the alluring and the repulsive, by manipulating how her viewers negotiate the two aspects of the hide. Indlovukati contrasts with the fighters in that the former refuses to render the unsightly underside up for inspection by facing the gallery wall, whilst the latter shows two figures facing each other so that the viewer is unable to view the glossy fur without stepping between them into the awkward space left.
Cowhide is a conceptually loaded substance and to conflate the (often dark) cowhide with the female figure is a contentious practice, which might arguably naturalize the ideological metonymy of women, blackness and nature. Other readings of Mntambo's work have centered on the traditional practice of 'ilobola' [bride-price] in South Africa, which is often criticised by feminists for reducing women to the level of possessions. Although these issues do play a part in Mntambo's attraction to the medium, it is reductive to read her production only in these terms. In filling out the vacated body of the cow with different forms, then vacating it again or re-embodying it herself, Mntambo utilizes the semantic layering embedded in her material to flesh out, exaggerate and ultimately - I would argue - deflate the terms which have kept people in subjugated states of embodiment. The quasi-scientific arguments which backed up the discourse of racism and sexism have long been discredited; however, their semantic legacy continues to haunt contemporary culture. It is this ghosting that Mntambo points to with her evocative and alluring sculptures.
But ghosting occurs on more than one level in Mntambo's work. Unable to fully capture the body which once filled them, the hides are also unable to escape the form left by that body. Mntambo notes how each incarnation of the hide leaves its mark, a residual impression on the form. The impressions, pulls, scars and even tears bear witness, haunting the outline of the hide to demonstrate the traumas of its various manifestations.
In the photographs Mlwa ne Nkunzi and Nftombi mfana Mntambo dons the cowhides in a play on the masculine matador's sumptuous and attention-seeking waistcoats. In so doing the artist muddies the gender roles usually cemented in the ritual bull-fighting arena, where men fight bulls in the ultimate expression of masculine virility. With these pieces, Mntambo investigates the cross-cultural struggles around gender-definition. That these forums for asserting masculinity make their way from the colonial centres into the former colonies (like the bull-fighting arena Mntambo found in Mozambique) demonstrates the colonial tides of cultural infiltration. Mntambo's work takes on the residual indigenous and imported cultural rituals that attempt to shore up the traditional distinctions between different bodies, using the repressed politics of these rituals to haunt the spaces set up for their adulation.
'My work is always greatly informed and influenced by the process of its making. My journey begins with the process of sorting through piles of salted cowhide for the perfect one. In the past I've had the hides tanned for me, but this time I purchased a home tanning kit comprising various different chemicals. Unfortunately the instructions in the kit didn't adequately prepare me for the next step: power tooling my way through thick layers of fat which need to be removed - a thoroughly nauseating process! After this the hide has to soak in a chemical bath for a week. I then stretch it over my mould - a combination of casts taken from my own body and the limbs of store mannequins, joined together using cretestone and resin. I have to really pull, stretch and nail down the hide so that it takes on the desired shape, but natural forces also play a part in the final result. Finally once it's dry I use a polyester mesh and resin to secure the shape. - Catalogue statement for 'In the Making: Materials and Process' at Michael Stevenson 2005.
'My intention is to explore the physical and tactile properties of hide and aspects of control that allow or prevent me from manipulating this material in the context of the female body and contemporary art. I have used cowhide as a means to subvert expected associations with corporeal presence, femininity, sexuality and vulnerability. The work I create seeks to challenge and subvert preconceptions regarding representation of the female body. The hair-covered but arguably beautiful female figures I create disrupt perceptions of attraction and repulsion. Being confronted with a hairy life-size woman which is not necessarily unequivocally repulsive causes various reactions, which have encouraged some viewers to re-think their ideas of the desirable.' - Catalogue statement for 'Ingabisa' at Michael Stevenson 2007.
'By experimenting with the process of tanning and casting cowhide into a shape, allowing drying, then re-wetting it, I have discovered that the hide also remembers the shape it was previously moulded onto and retains elements of this even in its new shape. This "material memory" that seems to live within the skin cells of the animals I use means that the medium itself can be seen as one that physically engages the concept of recollection, both on a cellular and physical level.' - Catalogue statement for 'Ingabisa' at Michael Stevenson 2007.
'The ambiguous space that exists within this (my "present/absence") is really intriguing me... I also enjoy the thought that anyone can occupy that space - viewers of my work can "step into" the shapes that are left empty and occupy the space I once did.' - Interview 2006.
'Just realising that there's more than just African connotations to the material [of cowhide] allows me the freedom to continue. Experiencing my work in different context, helped me with how I'd like my work to be read. Where I'm functioning from there's a very specific perception about the work. But I have learnt to channel these perceptions more and more.' - interview 2008
'Mntambo's concerns as an artist are cleverly reinforced by her choice of material: cowhide. It is a material variously associated with wealth and power. The literal hairiness of her figures also functions as a distancing device... Her work encourages us to critique the politics and aesthetics of femininity and beauty and is suggestive of the ways in which (black) women are re-interpreting their bodies and claiming visibility.' Gabi Ngcobo in Art South Africa vol 04, issue 03, 2006.
'Nandipha Mntambo works in a medium whose very substance as sculptural material depends on the fragility of memory. To reduce her work to the particular cultural and historical significance of cowhide in South Africa is to misinterpret the delicate line between culture, history and memory that her work traversesO^?�� The Nguni cultural practices associated with Mntambo's chosen medium are less inherent than inherited, and are often imposed on her along with assumptions about what it means to be a black woman artist working in contemporary South Africa. Mntambo defines herself as existing between several worlds, and refuses to be located in one particular identity.' Bettina Malcomess in Nandipha Mntambo, Michael Stevenson 2007.
Mntambo is currently editing her video piece, which is be her first foray into the medium. The video translates Mntambo's interest in femininity and cows into a cross-gender foray into bulls and the masculine arena of the bull-fight. It shows Mntambo as a matador in a deserted bull-fighting arena. She enacts a phantasmagoric bull-fight, making herself both the subject and the object of the work. For Mntambo, this video - although it puts her back into the frame of her work - continues with the theme of absence and residue because of the silent, vacated stadium in which it was shot. She will be taking the video to Berlin shortly for the exhibition 'Performing South Africa' curated by Stefanie Wenner at Hebbel am Ufer.
Mntambo graduated from the Michaelis School of Fine Art with a Master's degree with distinction in June 2007. Her graduate work was exhibited in a solo showing at the Michael Stevenson Gallery entitled 'Ingabisa'. The fighters, a sculpture on this exhibition, was a significant work for Mntambo because it showed her the possibilities for dealing with internal and external conflict through the dynamic created between her sculptures. The two figures were suspended in close proximity, so that the viewer was forced to deal with the underside of the hide facing them or to insert themselves into the awkward space left between them from where the glossy fur was visible.
During her studies and since, Mntambo has taken part in numerous local and abroad exhibitions. She was included in the Dak'Art bienale in Senegal, 'Erase me from who I am' in Las Palmas, 'Apartheid: The South African Mirror' and '.za' in Siena. She was a finalist in the MTN New Contemporaries Award in 2006, curated by Khwezi Gule. And before that she was awarded the curatorial fellowship for the Brett Kebble Art Awards in 2005 - for the exhibition that of course never happened.
Mntambo had her first public outing with the Sophie Perryer-curated 'In the Making: Materials and Process' at Michael Stevenson in 2005. Purge and Stepping into self that she showed here were later chosen to be included in Gabi Ncgobo and Virginia MacKenny's 'Second to None' at Iziko SANG in 2006.
Mntambo is setting up a studio in Salt River and plans to stay in Cape Town until the middle of next year whilst she prepares for her next outing at Michael Stevenson alongside Penny Siopis in May 2009. After that, she says, it's time to start spreading her wings and she intends to look for residencies abroad.
Born 1982 in Swaziland. Lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa.
2007 'Ingabisa', Michael Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town
2007 'Locating me in order to see you' (Master's exhibition), Michaelis Gallery, Cape Town
2008 'Disguise', Michael Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town
2008 Dak'art, Dakar Biennale, Senegal
2008 'Black Womanhood: Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body', Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire
2008 'Skin-to-skin: Challenging textile art',t Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg
2008 '.za: giovane arte dal Sudafrica', Palazzo delle Papesse, Siena
2008 'The Trickster' at ArtExtra, Johannesburg
2007 'Summer 2007/8', Michael Stevenson, Cape Town
2007 'Apartheid: The South African Mirror', Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona
2007 'Afterlife', Michael Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town
2006 'Olivida quien soy - Erase me from who I am', Centro Atlantico de Arte Moderno, Las Palmas
2006 'MTN New Contemporaries', Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg
2006 'Second to None', Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town
2005 'In the making: Materials and Process', Michael Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town
2001/2 Curated the Parliamentary Millennium Project (PMP)
2005 Curatorial Fellowship, Brett Kebble Art Awards
2003/4 Mellon Meyers Fellowship, Michaelis School of Fine Arts