Nandipha Mntambo was born in Swaziland in 1982 and received her MFA from the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town in 2007. In 2006 she was one of five young artists selected for the MTN New Contemporaries exhibition at Johannesburg Art Gallery. She is the recipient of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Art in 2011 for which she produced the national travelling exhibition Faena. Mntambo's works have been exhibited in museums and biennials, including the Dak'Art, the Smithsonian National Museum for African Art, the Moscow International Biennale, the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt and the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki.

Nandipha Mntambo, Praça de Touros II, 2008. Image: Courtesy of the artist

Salome Kokoladze: Before pursuing arts, you studied forensic pathology. As you switched disciplines, what challenges, if any, you faced entering the art world?

Nandipha Mntambo: Luckily, I was still quite young then. At school we studied a whole range of subjects and I decided to transition into the arts almost straight after school; so, the transition was not that difficult. It became harder later in my studies. The history of South Africa and how apartheid worked were contributing factors to my challenges. In the past, a lot of black artists were using very specific materials mainly due to a lack of access to resources or education. While I was in art school, there was this feeling that because I was interested in sculpture, I should follow the path of using the materials such as wood or clay used by black artists in the past. It became pretty obvious to me then that there was a very stereotypical way of understanding the art that black people made. This was a strange experience, not because I did not see myself as black, but because it was not the first thought that was on my mind when making art. The fact that it was other people reminding me of my blackness felt annoying.

There was also a general problem of the lack of different perspectives. I was the only black student in my class. There were not any black lecturers either at the university. The perspectives of what art could be, what materials can be used to make art, who can be an artist, were very limited.

SK: You ended up working with cowhide, a very unusual material for sculpting. Considering the environment at the University, what helped you maintain confidence while experimenting with non-traditional materials?

NM: When I was growing up, our family was the only black family living in a particular neighborhood. And then the school that took me in was a Jewish school because no other school would take me in. I think the challenge of being the other was always a part of my life, which helped me build resilience in a way. Also, my parents, being the people they are, contributed in terms of me gaining confidence. In the end, it was a combination of factors that helped.

SK: Your initial interest in cowhide came from a dream. If you remember it, can you tell us what the dream was?

NM: All I remember is all these cowhides hanging, I do not remember the details of it. But it was right away that I decided to work with them. The next day, I called my dad and I asked him to help me find cowhides. I have always been a person who follows intuition, so it was a quick decision.

Nandipha Mntambo, Titfunti emkhatsini wetfu (The shadows between us), 2013. Image: Courtesy of the artist

SK: What was the initial experience of working with the material?

NM: The first step was figuring out how to treat the hides. Although I had done science at school, I was not a person who understood tanning. Luckily, the university was situated right next to the Natural History Museum. I just walked over there, and I asked if they could help me learn how to tan hides. They were really generous, and they assigned a taxidermist to me. I have studied with him for six months or so. Obviously, six months does not make you a professional tanner. There were maggots, flies and all these really disgusting stuff in the studio, so I lost my studio assistant. It was quite difficult to get the hang of it, because you get a fresh cowhide and if it is summer, then it will rot really quickly. If you do not take off all the fat, then you have got another problem. It was a lot of learning as I was going. It was quite challenging at that time, and it took a while to get the right rhythm and the right chemical process.

SK: Your cowhide sculptures feel very performative. Looking at, for example, your Silent Embrace series, I not only see the molds, but also imagine you with this very visceral material, molding it to your naked mother’s body. This whole process must have been everything from difficult to maybe even cathartic. Do you also see performativity in your sculptural work?

NM: Yes, the whole process is quite performative. The performance, however, happens in private spaces. The act of tanning the hides or taking off the fat, even choosing a hide is a performance in itself. The first piece that I made with my mom, the interesting part of it was the performance of being mother and daughter, the performance of being women of different ages, and the fact that when you are inside your mother being incubated, you are very much a part of that person, but separate at the same time. Questions of how identity works, how genetics work all became part of Silent Embrace.

Nandipha Mntambo, Silent Embrace #2, 2007. Image: Courtesy of the artist

SK: Has the shift from your sculptures to more abstract explorations of the body through painting led you to ask new questions about the body?

NM: Different mediums answer different questions. A photograph can never fully answer the same question as a painting, or a lithograph would. Within the sort of abstract space of painting, I was thinking around the fact that the body is a landscape and it consists of these convex and concave shapes. The paintings allowed me to play with the different part of the brain. Through painting I looked at forms, colors, and lines rather than maybe at the kind of texture of cowhide or the smell of it. In this way, I wanted to both challenge the viewer and myself to see the body differently.

SK: People often say that art is a universal language understood across cultures. I feel, however, that as artworks travel from a country to a country or from a community to a community they are constantly being translated. As an artist who has exhibited internationally, what are some of the most unexpected readings of your work that you have encountered?

NM: There have been a few instances, I cannot really name all of them. When I initially started working with cowhides, I decided on pallets, or a particular series of colors. I have a series of works that I have made just from black hides, a series of works that are made from spotted hides and etc. The work I was making from black hides was included in a show in Las Palmas in Spain. Las Palmas is a Spanish island, off the coast of Africa. People were confused about the work maybe because the sculptures evoked this humanoid form with a black fur. There was the question of whether I was making a commentary on racist perceptions of black people as gorillas. That interpretation of my work was one of the strangest. Another interpretation of my work had to do with the tradition called lobola in South Africa, where cows determine the right price for a wife. Some people thought I was making a commentary on women being sold for cows.

SK: While it is certainly not your responsibility to correct misconceptions around your artwork, I do wonder how as an artist, you deal with the instances when people bring their preconceived notions of what, let’s say feminist or black artist should be talking about?

MN: What helped me at first was deciding to actually write and read more. To write more around my work, what I did not want people to take from it as well as what I did want people to take from the work. Doing my MFA really helped me with the process. Also, just continuing to work was important. As you mentioned, having your work in different places cultivates different reactions and different feelings. Continuing to work, travel and being able to see some of the shows also then help you interact with various cultures. The experience expands how you think around your work. As a result, you have the language and the ability to speak about what you want the work to be about or how you want people to respond to it.

SK: I am also curious about your work process in general. Every artist has their own rhythm of working and I am wondering what a day in your studio looks like.

NM: I built a studio in my backyard, because I enjoy my work and being able to access it whenever I want or whenever there is an inspiration is important to me. I enjoy being in the studio even if I am not necessarily making anything. I designed the studio myself with an architect and the building itself is an artwork, a project that I really enjoyed. It is a space built for what I do. Whether it is the smell of cowhide, the smell of paint, or looking at a photograph, even if I am not doing anything necessarily in terms of making, all of these observations inform a later process.

SK: Has your work process been different during the pandemic?

NM: Yes and no. My daughter for a long time did not go to school during the pandemic. There was a lot of managing of both her and the studio, allowing her to be in the studio, paint or just enjoy being there. And I obviously have to be more careful around what chemicals I am using at the time she is there. Her presence has shifted how I am in the studio.

SK: What are some of your motivations/inspirations for doing what you do this particular year?

NM: This year I have been focusing on the Kingdom of Dahomey, which is an old African civilization. No one really knows exactly where they were, but somewhere between the border of the Republic of Benin and Nigeria. The Kingdom of Dahomey had an army of women who were protecting the kings of that period, I think around 1800s. I am exploring them for this moment. This project leads me to an interesting thought process around how we understand labor, how we understand what men and women do, how we understand protection, and how we understand fighting. I find this army of women amazing. The work around this theme includes bronze sculptures as well as some paintings and drawings.

SK: You often position yourself in different historical or mythological narratives. Are you somehow present in the artwork about the Kingdom of Dahomey?

NM: Yes, the bronze sculptures are of me as these warrior women. I have a designer friend and we have been doing a lot of research looking at the costumes of the time and making it all as historically accurate as we can. The performance of being this army of women is what the show is about.

SK: Before we end the conversation, I wonder if you have any advice for younger or emerging artists.

NM: I mean it is so difficult, that word emerging. I am forty years old now and I feel I am forever emerging. In general, it is important to stay on your path. There are times when you shift and have your interests change. However, if you are focused on your voice, then you are able to stay more authentic to yourself. Two or three years ago, I started painting and I was interested in exploring larger, more abstract feelings. My gallery at the time responded by saying, “what the hell are you doing, what is going on?” That response caused us to go separate ways, because I was exploring what I wanted to explore, and I did not feel their support for or an understanding of what I was going through. The point is, there are times where you do have to shift, and you do have to move. However, you cannot lose faith in yourself or in your process just because things are not going at that time the way you want them to.

Also, it is helpful to have advisors or people in your circle who are not necessarily artists. Someone who is an architect, or an accountant has a different way of looking at things. Having those varied perspectives around you is crucial.

CAConrad has been working with the ancient technologies of poetry and ritual since 1975. They are the author of Amanda Paradise (Wave Books, 2021). Other titles include The Book of Frank, While Standing in Line for Death, and Ecodeviance. They received a Creative Capital grant, a Pew Fellowship, a Lambda Literary Award, and a Believer Magazine Book Award. They teach at Columbia University in New York City and Sandberg Art Institute in Amsterdam. Visit their website

CAConrad. Photo by Alice Wynne.

Salome Kokoladze: In one of your first rituals you observed autumn trees, their falling leaves and how everything prepares to sleep for winter. You mention that you “wanted to be awake for the winter for the first time in years.” Knowing that this ritual, like many others, led you to find the language for your poems, could you talk about the relationship between wakefulness and poetry?

CAConrad: Thank you for this question. That (Soma)tic ritual you refer to is part of what I did to overcome a severe depression after the rape and murder of my boyfriend Earth.

My goal as a poet is to reach and maintain wakefulness. When I began reading and writing poetry in 1975, it did not take me long to understand that it made me see the world in ways that were not happening with teachers or anyone else in my life. Each new book of poems was a new key to interpret the road ahead further. I come from factory workers, and I knew that to forge a life as a writer, I needed to leave, and after high school, I moved to the city.

It was not until 2005 that I finally understood that I had learned a technique from my family that I needed to be overcome for a better life and writing. When you are an extension of a machine for most of your waking hours at work, you certainly do not want to be present for it. While doing their tedious, repetitive jobs in the factory, they shut the present off, sending their minds to the past or future. After work, they do not know how to retrieve the present; this is a tool they devised to survive their jobs, but I absorbed it into my life. (Soma)tic poetry rituals were the answer to my problem because I cannot think of anything except precisely what I am doing. To answer you directly, they need one another, poetry and wakefulness.

SK: It seems counterintuitive, but could wakefulness relate to the experience of dreaming since the latter is also such a crucial material for constructing the poetic language?

CA: Dreaming in so many ways is part of (Soma)tic rituals I have used, so I have to say yes. Currently, I am doing a ritual that involves dreaming with crows. During the pandemic lockdown, I am in Seattle, awaiting my vaccination shot with everyone. Seattle has an enormous crow population; they are marvelous and own this city in so many ways. I have nine whole peanuts that I carry around with me during the day, whispering to them, singing to them. In the evening, when the last group of crows come to my windowsill for food, I break the peanuts in half, giving nine halves to them, and I eat the other nine halves. We then dream together, and the spaces they make in my sleep are beautiful, wide-open like nothing can stop us. I wake feeling like flying over the buildings with them. It has been a terrific experience.

SK: Artist and writer, David Wojnarowicz claimed that in the USA people cannot deal with death unless they own it. To own death must mean to control the narratives of death as well as forms of remembering the dead. If you could imagine a world (maybe this world existed in the past, or exists currently in another culture), where death does not feed the national ego, what would that world look like?

CA: Oh, well, I believe absolutely nothing would be the same. Nothing! It is death that drives us to every one of the ambitions we believe in about ourselves and our lives. To be competitive is another way to distract from the fact that we will die. During Covid-19, the US is acting as one could expect from a nation so childish about the subject of death. Have you ever seen the word "death" in a sympathy card? Because I have not, not once, and I look for death all the time in that very place, it should exist.

As a young person in the 1980s and 90s, I lost so many loved ones to AIDS, something I wrote about in an essay published last year. It is different because I had to go through it at so many funerals, sometimes more than once a week. When you come out the other side of that many shed tears, you are going to be seeing death as the great commons, reached with or without our compliance. The bigger problem is that this issue you speak of is why we cannot grasp that our tax dollars are murdering millions of people in our wars. Talking about OWNING DEATH, because if anyone is the bringing of destruction, it is the United States. We have invested countless hours of creativity in laboratories devising faster and more efficient weapons for killing human beings.

SK: There is nothing little about little lights in the sky you write in “Every Feel Unfurl”. Even though to realize the enormity of the stars might make us feel vulnerable as well as little/unimportant, reading the line above felt like a relief, somehow it felt joyful. To know the size of things, their enormity as well as their minuteness, how does it contribute to the way they are felt and defined?

CA: Thank you for sharing how this poem affected you; I appreciate that. Seeing the small in the large, or even in proximity to the large, helps us understand how that largeness is us. And maybe, in the end, there is no separation. Those little lights in the sky come from the same exploded source as our planet and stars, and of course, our very bodies as well. We have an extraordinary, beautiful world, and I hope we can keep our home.

Judith Sánchez Ruíz, a Cuban-born choreographer, teacher, and improviser, first encountered modern dance when she was 11 while attending the National Art School Cuba in 1983. After graduating from the school with a diploma in Modern and Folkloric Dance, Sánchez relocated to New York in 1991. She has worked with Trisha Brown Dance Company, David Zambrano, DD Dorvillier, Jeremy Nelson & Luis Lara Malvacías, Deborah Hay, Sasha Waltz & Guests among others. In 2010 she founded JSR Company in New York City, choreographing multidisciplinary and site-specific performances. JSR has been commissioned by the Storm King Art Center, NY (2010) as well as the Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process Performing Arts Series (2010). In 2011 Sánchez relocated to Berlin, where she is currently based.

In the performance titled Black, Black, Blah Blah Blah? at the Tictac Art Center, Sánchez collaborated with an Afro feminist and LGBTQI activist Rachel Moore to explore how one can improvise about pain, violence, dead bodies, injustice, and institutional racism. As she reflects on the performance, Sánchez shares with us, "All I could see while moving was confusing and very emotional. The energy was so thick, audience members uncomfortable, shivering waves of tension and relief: I, myself, a witness of such interaction at the stage.

I felt paralyzed hearing Moore mention names taken by violence....The body of the dancer could only be a landscape. I was providing full attention to what was the most needed. I couldn’t lose myself in it. I was attentive."

Video recorded by Tictac Art Center. July 2020. Brussels, Belgium. Video Credit: Courtesy of the artist.