'Through experimenting with the process of casting cowhide into a shape, allowing it to dry, then re-wetting it, I have discovered that the hide "remembers" the shape it was previously moulded onto and retains elements of this even in its new shape. This "material memory" that seems to exist within the skin cells of the animals I use means that the medium itself is one that physically engages the idea of recollection.'
Nandipha Mntambo has chosen to make her most characteristic works from cowhide, a material that is redolent of past lives, and specifically the lives of animals - governed by humans, and subjected to the inhumanity with which we treat other life forms. The material is impregnated with pathos at the same time as it is delicate and beautiful. This is particularly true for the hide from cows' faces, which bears the whiskers and eyelashes that are associated with the senses and thus the way living creatures experience the world.
In Iqaba lami (loosely translated as 'my traditionalist'), Mntambo also makes reference to a case of inhumanity to other humans - the genocide perpetrated against the Herero people by German colonists in South West Africa in the early 1900s. From the hide Mntambo has made a Herero dress, modelled on the bulky Victorian costume won by the colonial German women and featuring a bustle. The dress was ridiculously impractical for the climate and exigencies of the time, but was adopted by the Herero with such enthusiasm that the style - first constructed with multiple underskirts of animal hide and more recently translated into patterned fabrics - is still worn with pride today.
For the bustle, Mntambo uses hide from cows' faces, complete with the holes where eyes looked out, and mouths and noses used to be. Forming a train, the faces look backwards, like witnesses to the past. With its fur reminiscent of feathers, the dress conjures up Walter Benjamin's angel of history, looking backwards at the 'catastrophe' of the past while forcibly impelled, by the storm of progress, into the future.
© 2007 Michael Stevenson. All rights reserved.