Bullish beneath the skin

Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year Nandipha Mntambo is known for work that is “physical” in every sense of the word: from the cowhides she used as a medium in the works that earned her recognition to the way she manipulated the grisly material, shaping it around her own body to create hollow sculptures.

These arresting art works are as fascinating in their disembodied strangeness as they are repellent. Many viewers are left uncomfortable by the use of such an organic material — with its unsavoury smells and textures — to capture the traditionally delicate female form, the cowhide replacing human skin.

Cowhide is a medium that carries many connotations in this country. Its myriad practical uses have made it familiar, whether it is used as a floor covering, in musical instruments or for garments (another way Mntambo uses it). But Mntambo feels the medium does not just speak to her South African audience. “Every civilisation in the world has some kind of connection to or association with cows and cowhide. It is one of many things that connect us.”

In using the hide in its most natural form, before it is sanitised beyond all recognition, she reminds the viewer that the hide once belonged to a living, breathing animal.

From femininity to brute strength

Mntambo learnt to work with hide after working with a taxidermist, who taught her ways to harden it after shaping it on her own body.

She is not squeamish — she once had ambitions to work as a forensic pathologist before realising that she would find fulfilment as an artist.

Nandipha Mntambo’s fascination with the symbolism of cows and bulls has long been evident. We take a look at some of her works ahead of the National Arts Festival, where she will be showing her latest exhibition.

Her more recent work continues her fascination with the cow (and bull) as a subject and motif. In a bronze sculpture, a self-portrait morphs into a bull — the feminine merging with a symbol of brute strength and power.

A series of glossy photographs depict her as a bullfighter, the peak of stereotypical European masculinity.

The calculated staginess of these works may seem far removed from the organic nature of her earlier works. I asked Mntambo if the choice of medium affected how she related to her subject matter and her connection with the message at the core of her works, that of female representation.

“I have always been interested in being able to move in-between creative spaces,” she said.

“Working in different media allows me to explore a greater understanding of the ­language of art. Allowing myself the challenge to work with varied materials keeps me interested in my art practice.”

She added: “I use myself in most of my work, so I am never really detached from it.”

Dance with death
In her latest exhibition, which is on show at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this week, she continues to explore different media. Faena combines video, sculpture, painting and drawing in a complex study of the art of bullfighting.

More bullfighting? I asked Mntambo whether representing familiar themes again is a wise choice for a young artist. Surely there is a risk that your audience will know what to expect and lose interest?

“By working in varied media and exploring a range of themes, I think I have successfully dodged the pigeonholes,” she said.

In her artist’s statement about the exhibition, she explains the exhibition’s title and theme. “The faena is the most beautiful and skilful section of a bullfight. It refers to a dance with death, where the ­matador must prove his courage and artistry.”

The works in this exhibition focus on the details of the preparation — the costume of the matador and the ritual of dressing for the fight. She also examines the paso doble (double step), a theatrical dance modelled on the drama of a bullfight.

Sinister motif

This is no objective study, however, despite the careful research that went into the works. The dances represent masculine power and the music, used in the dance but repeated before the bull is killed, becomes a sinister motif.

The painted works are tactile and layered and reveal the artist’s physical and emotional connection to her subject. Thematically and technically, Mntambo’s work seems to have come full circle, albeit in a bullring.

Faena opens on July 1 at 2pm in the Monument Gallery

For more from the National Arts Festival, see our special report.

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