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Labour, performance, and sculpture: The artworks of Nandipha Mntambo

With artworks on show in Belgium, Italy, and the United States this year alone, South African sculptor Nandipha Mntambo has been hard at work. Creative Feel caught up with the artist ahead of this year’s FNB Art Joburg to find out a bit more about her process.

FNB Art Joburg Gallery Lab MAX Nandipha Mntambo
Nandipha Mntambo, First Breath, 2019

It’s a Wednesday morning in Johannesburg’s Kensington and the artist Nandipha Mntambo is seated at the kitchen table of her home, drinking coffee. Light floods the space and artworks by various South African artists populate the walls, including two prints from Mntambo’s own Inkunzi Emnyama body of work. In the background, the radio plays.
     Mntambo, the eSwatini-born, internationally renowned artist known for her deep understanding and empathy for the human form, materiality, identity, mythology, and more, is glad to be home and with a permanent studio space in the works. Following a year and a half in New York where she lived, worked, and raised her new-born child, Mntambo arrived back in South Africa a few years ago with the decision to settle into a permanent home and studio space.
     ‘This house was built in 1931, so the kind of history around the working-class space of South Africa still existed in the way things were built,’ she explains. ‘I grew up in old houses like this so I have a strange familiarity with the pressed ceilings and the wooden floors, but then also a realisation of the very painful history that it comes with. I wasn’t actually thinking about labour this much until I started building that studio.’ 
     Mntambo is talking about the new building currently taking shape in her backyard. More specifically, she is talking about the two stand-alone structures that predate the studio – an outdoor toilet and a small washroom common to most South African homes built in the early 1900s, intended to function as ablution facilities for gardeners and domestic workers of the household. The studio, now a year in the making, currently exists as an open-plan, wood and corrugated iron building with plenty of natural light, built around the two structures. Together with the architect Kate Otten, Mntambo decided to incorporate the structures into the studio space rather than demolish them.

FNB Art Joburg Gallery Lab MAX Nandipha Mntambo
Nandipha Mntambo PHOTO Dave Mann

‘Kate has a really great knowledge of South African architecture and of Johannesburg. She knows how the city was built and the history behind it,’ says Mntambo. ‘There’s this strange history of how labour worked here, in this space, and we’ve decided to keep that as a core element of the studio. So the one structure is now my grinding room where I grind the cowhide, and next to it is now my tanning tank.’
     In the meantime, Mntambo’s been working in the backyard and from a spare bedroom inside her home. While it’s not her ideal set-up, she’s satisfied simply to be making work in South Africa.
     With shows in Boston, Venice, and Brussels, Mntambo’s work has been all over the world this year alone. In addition to her 2017 solo exhibition at Cape Town’s Zeitz MOCAA, the inaugural exhibitions at The Norval Foundation and Zeitz featured her work; this year’s FNB Art Joburg will see her showing new work to Johannesburg audiences for the first time in a good while. And while the work is still very much in progress, a glimpse at her recent pieces at this year’s Art Basel Miami can give you a pretty good idea of what to expect.
     ‘I think the interesting part for me right now is making a decision around a particular palette. I think about my cowhide works in terms of colours and palettes and right now I’m interested in these very muted whites and greys,’ she explains.

FNB Art Joburg Gallery Lab MAX Nandipha Mntambo
Nandipha Mntambo, Quiet Contentment, 2019

Mntambo’s cowhide works – soft, sculptural pieces rich in detail, form, and narrative – have long served as vehicles for mythology, animality, identity, the human form and more. Recently, the artist has begun playing around with ram horns in these works, most evidently in First Breath and Quiet Contentment. The horns, worn and almost translucent, appear as small adornments. Sometimes they are a single thorn in the side, other times they are collections of calcified roots or tendrils towards the base of the sculpture. Viewed together, the works are a curious and unsettling contradiction – objects that are at once of the mythological and corporeal world. They are fossils, full of fiction and history, death and possibility.
     ‘I’m thinking about a whole spectrum of animal and human merges,’ she says. ‘I’ve been looking a lot at the work of Hieronymus Bosch, actually, and the space of heaven, hell, and the middle ground. I think I’m really wanting to capture the space of a darkness or the underbelly of mythology – the underworld of how animals and humans intersect. That’s why I’m so focused on colour palette at the moment – I want the viewer to be drawn in, but almost scared at the same time.’
     The fear Mntambo talks about wanting to put forward in her work is tied to her ideas about the purpose and possibility of an artwork, as well as the act of challenging the position and the complacency of the viewer. For Mntambo, art fair audiences have become strangely detached from the work they view.

‘I think there’s a lot of interest in terms of what Africa has to offer right now and I think the perception of African art is shifting. When it comes to sculpture, I think that we’re still in a very complicated space where it seems as if people need a very immediate understanding of what they’re looking at. Art fairs are different from gallery or museum spaces. They’re primarily commercial endeavours and their audiences have become a little bit lazy – they need instant gratification in a way. So, I’m quite curious to see how this new iteration of the fair happens and how it feeds into the other events that are happening at the same time,’ explains Mntambo.
      If there is a medium best suited to prompting thought or emotion in its audience, for Mntambo, certainly, it would be the medium of sculpture. While she works across printmaking, painting, photography, film and more, it is sculpture that Mntambo will forever return to as her primary mode of expression. This is not only because of her formal training in the medium, but more so for the possibilities it can allow. Whether crafted out of bronze or bamboo, made to wilt or to outlast, sculpture is both a means of expression and an ever-evolving medium for the artist. Still, there is a constant: For Mntambo, good sculptural work is nothing short of performative. 
     ‘For me, sculpture has always performed. I want viewers of my work to sometimes believe or be able to feel that they can take the space of where my body was within an installation. I also think that viewers should be able to interact with the work in a way. My sculptures have a texture, they have a smell – these are all activities and sensations one encounters when one is in the space of the sculpture. Sculpture performs,’ concludes Mntambo. ‘It has to. It would be an unsuccessful sculpture if it didn’t.’

Find out more about Art Week Joburg in our other articles:
A feast of fairs at Art Week Joburg 2019
The all-new FNB Art Joburg
Creating a legacy through printmaking with Artist Proof Studio
Thomarts Gallery is at The MARC during Art Week Joburg

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