The horns of a dilemma

26 March 2010 - 01:30 By Jackie May

The Big Interview: For somebody who has produced a large body of work, and who has attracted the attention of buyers from everywhere, Nandipha Mntambo is surprisingly young. At 28, she is confident, insightful and thoughtful beyond her years.

I meet the artist at a bookshop in Melville, where she is living for a few months. I arrive to find her waiting for me: she is lovely - tall and graceful.

Mntambo was part of an exhibition at Constitutional Hill last year that turned sour when Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana stormed out, calling the work "immoral".

Her photographic work, The Rape of Europa, was what upset Xingwana's delicate sensibilities. The photograph is her reinterpretation of a Picasso sketch of the Minotaur caressing a girl, in which the artist occupies both roles.

That she uses the Greek mythological creature with the head of a bull on the body of a man comes as no surprise.

Mntambo has been working with cowhide since university and it has led to her working with different interpretations of the cow.

"I thought I would get tired of using cowhide, but it's an unlimited material. There is always a new aspect, and different associations," she says.

She is dressed in muted colours and her bright red nail varnish adds a flash of colour as she uses her hands to tell me how what she "reads and sees informs new work related to the hide."

She is inspired by civilisations and different myths, such as the Greek myths of Europa, Zeus and the Minotaur, which have led to exploring her cowhide theme.

Last year, after years of tanning and moulding hide onto casts of the female body, usually her own, Mntambo was battling with how she was being labelled by her audience.

"People wanted to 'box' me. With limited understanding of art, my work is interpreted by referring to me as a black, South African woman."

"People need to have a particular type of language. 'Black' is a word we all understand. 'Female' is a word we all understand. In my work there isn't anything specific identified. So instead of looking at the art and reacting to it, they looked at me. In trying to find an interpretation of the work, they looked at aspects that are divorced from the work."

Wanting to liberate herself from this limitation she went through a period of contemplation.

"I had a lot of internal conflict with the way I want to work, with the way people understand me."

From this grew her work with bullfighting, which culminated in the video Ukungenisa and related photographs.

The video shows her rehearsing the steps of a bullfighter in the abandoned Praça de Touros in Maputo. Taking on the persona of the bullfighter represents a shift for Mntambo. Not only did her previous work invite the viewer to take her place, to step into the outline of her body, the moulded cowhide, but they see only the final product of a performance.

"In my studio there is a performance of tanning, moulding and crafting my work. People see the end product, but here the video is the performance."

"I wanted a new dimension to my work. And it was interesting to play in this realm of performance.

"I was also interested in the exchange of feelings between the bull, the audience and the fighting."

Back to the subject of engaging with the audience, I ask her about Xingwana's response to The Innovative Women exhibition last year.

"Foremost, professionalism is what I expect. So her reaction shocked me and upset me, because it was about South African women. It was disrespectful to the artists in the show, to women and to the people who had come to see the show."

What upset her, too, was the minister's apparent refusal to want to understand; her refusal to engage.

"What was it about the works that made them relevant? What should she be looking for?

"I don't think she worked at understanding what her job is about. It also made me wonder at how her advisers hadn't properly briefed her about the exhibition."

In what other ways does this incident worry her?

"I worry, of course, about censorship and art. And I think the department of arts and culture is seen as a lesser portfolio, and policies around art and its funding are important because art is a real job."

"It's made me sad about the future of the arts and how people understand living here and having a career that is viable and successful."

But Mntambo says she's here to stay.

"I've had ample opportunity to leave. I enjoy the complexities of living here. It contributes to my work."

And what is happening in her life now?

"It's a strange time for me. I am in Joburg doing a Wits residency, giving talks and working with students. It's a bit weird as I don't have space to work. But last year was a difficult year. I made a lot of work. So I am enjoying the change of pace."

  • Mntambo will be exhibiting two works with Michael Stevenson Gallery at the Joburg Art Fair this weekend.
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