October 9, 2013
Sculptor Nandipha Mntambo was born in the tiny Kingdom of Swaziland but grew up in bustling Johannesburg before moving to Cape Town for college. Initially interested in becoming a forensic pathologist, Mntambo switched careers when she realized she “didn’t really want to be sitting in a lab, looking at dead bodies all day."1 Since she had taken art classes in high school, she had a small portfolio with which she applied to the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town. She earned both her BFA and MFA from Michaelis, completing the latter in 2007.
In the short time since leaving school, Mntambo has acquired both national and international acclaim. By 2012, Stevenson, the gallery that represents Mntambo in South Africa, had given her four solo shows. She has also exhibited in museums across Europe and participated in biennials in Bamako, Dakar, Moscow, and Sydney. In 2013, Mntambo exhibited her first international solo show at Andréhn-Schiptjenko in Stockholm.
Though her work has greatly developed with the experience from and influence of the transcontinental biennials and residencies, Mntambo’s childhood interests and observations continue to lay the foundation for many of the defining characteristics of her work. She says that her enthusiasm for science and forensics led her to the medium she uses now.2 And it is true that while she doesn’t examine the human body in a lab, she does spend considerable time examining it in her studio.
Mntambo’s Emabutfo (2009), which translates into warriors from Swazi, exemplifies the work for which she has become known. The piece is a collection of twenty-four cowhide sculptural objects that are something between garment and mannequin. Each figure is both elegant and rough. They wouldn’t look out of place in a Rodeo Drive window display, but the hides appear coarse and minimally treated. The headless and legless figures hang regimentally from the ceiling like an army of animalistic fashionistas. The traditional markers of gender are mostly absent from the sculptures, but the figures’ breasts could identify them as either female forms or attire for the female body.
Mntambo’s Titfuni emkhatsini wetfu (2013) is a ghostly take on the same approach. These two figures also hang from the ceiling, their skirts billowing in the still gallery air, but they appear as specters rather than members of a phalanx. The white hide with black spots resembles the stereotypical cow of cartoons and commercials, but these figures look more like centaurs. The two works taken together don’t explicitly conflate the female form with cattle, but an ambiguous connection emerges from the forms and materials in Mntambo’s sculptures.
Much of Mntambo’s interest in creating hairy, female garments stems from the childhood fascination with body hair of her peers growing up. “There was an assumption that the lack of body hair would make you more attractive,” she recalls.3 This cultural attitude pressed her to think as an artist about how people would react to a completely hairy female form. Using herself as a model (because she hadn’t figured out “the politics of representing other people,” she says) she began making these hirsute forms.4 In addition to attempting to push the boundary between human and animal, Mntambo expresses interest in pushing the boundary between male and female, stating that while she likes the way the hides accentuate some of her feminine qualities, she also enjoys the level of androgyny they create. She even says that there was a stage in her career when people were unsure whether she was male or female.
Mntambo explains that she chose to work with cowhide because “the cow is something that everyone in every civilization at every time has had some connection to.”5 While not all people of the world have lived in close relation to cattle, cows are nearly ubiquitous, inhabiting every continent but Antarctica. Cattle were domesticated in the Neolithic age—thousands of years before Sumer, Ur, or Giza—and have been a part of daily human life since.6 The quotidian significance of cows is immense, but Mntambo’s use of their hide in her work elicits the more complex relationship between humans and our bovine neighbors. Cattle have, at times in our history, been used as currency, as they still are in parts of rural South Sudan.7 Functioning as currency or wealth, cattle have often been used in dowries, and this practice still exists today, including in parts of South Africa where Mntambo lives. While the practice takes on a symbolic form—not all that different from a father “giving away” his daughter at the altar—the historical link is strong. Writing about the elaborate dowry tradition he partook in leading up to his South African wedding, BBC cameraman Christian Parkinson wrote, “It's considered bad form in South Africa to talk openly about how much you paid for a wife. Let's just say it cost me a herd.”8
But even with the female qualities and the historical connections throughout the world between women and cows, Mntambo’s work doesn’t equate human females with cows, either genuinely or sarcastically. In fact, Mntambo says that the biggest misconception about her work is that it has a “feminist agenda at its core.”9 And though her work may not explicitly call out certain political issues, her decision to use a medium with such worldwide cultural meaning invites a great deal of political and social critique. Even her interest in androgyny is a political, if not feminist, powder keg. But these cultural allusions are accompanied by Mntambo’s earnest interest in her medium, in representing life with dead matter, in the chemical process for treating hide, and in its tactile qualities.
Another boundary Mntambo is interested in complicating is that between African and European perspectives, and she has said that she seeks “understanding a global way of the world.”10 The cultural significance of cattle in South Africa is meaningful to her work—whether it’s the tradition of dowries or the cowhides that adorn each of the judicial seats in the country’s Constitutional Court—but Mntambo’s astute choice of medium exploits the fact that cattle have a ten-thousand-year history with humans, bearing significance for almost any viewer of her work. A Nebraska rancher and the BBC’s Parkinson may view Mntambo’s work with very different perspectives, but it’s a near certainty that it will resonate somehow. In a way, Mntambo can have her cake and eat it, too. She can focus on her medium and avoid her work being political “at its core,” but only because she has chosen a deeply political medium.
- “Standard Bank Young Artist Awards 2011 - Visual Art,” video clip, accessed September 23, 2013, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7VvBiUYuqV8.
- “Nandipha Mntambo,” video clip, accessed September 23, 2013, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CcTK7cOEUyw.
- Ruth Bollongino et al., “Modern Taurine Cattle Descended from Small Number of Near-Eastern Founders,” in Molecular Biology and Evolution, accessed September 23, 2013, http://mbe.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2012/03/14/molbev.mss092.
- David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House: Brooklyn, NY, 2011), 59–61. John Burnett, “In South Sudan, Cows Are Cash And Source Of Friction,” NPR, August 16, 2012, http://www.npr.org/2012/08/16/158776225/in-south-sudan-cows-are-cash-and-source-of-friction.
- Christian Parkinson, “Getting Married the South African Way,” BBC, January 22, 2011, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/9369284.stm.
- Natasha Maradzika, “Nandipha Mntambo | Hide & Seek,” Another Africa, December 11, 2012, http://www.anotherafrica.net/art-culture/nandipha-mntambo-hide-seek.
- “Nandipha Mntambo” video clip.