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.
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.
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.
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.