Nandipha Mntambo

The Encounter

16 April - 30 May 2009

Michael Stevenson is pleased to present the second solo exhibition of Nandipha Mntambo.

Mntambo has developed a distinctive aesthetic through her use of cowhide, which she tans and moulds onto casts of the female body, usually her own. She purchases the hide as raw as possible in order to engage fully with the material - its smell and textures causing revulsion but also provoking a consciousness of the corporeal. As the artist explains:

The work I create is part of an engagement with the physical and tactile properties of cowhide and aspects of control that allow or prevent me from manipulating this organic material. In my process of wrapping, hooking, grinding, washing and cleaning, I am conscious of the subject of memory and how this informs both my process and end product. While working I think of the material memory that remains in the cells of each hide, and of the universal cultural and historical memory associated with the cow as deity, sustenance and currency.

Mntambo's intrigue with this material has led her to explore the Greek myths of Europa, Zeus and the Minotaur as well as the sport of bullfighting and the Hindu legend of Nandi the bull. In each of these contexts there is a dynamic between fighting and protecting, public spectacle and private self. Themes of confrontation, protection, armour and refuge play out particularly in relation to personal conflicts and vulnerability, and to notions of self-love/hatred.

In this show of new work, the central installation is Emabutfo, a ghost-like army of cowhide figures moulded on Mntambo's body. The army is positioned in relation to Nandikeshvara, a figure with arms outstretched, rising up from a cascade of cows' hooves. In the next room is uMcedo, a massive wall piece constructed from cows' tails, as well as three partial figures that appear to take refuge in the wall.

Mntambo also exhibits two photographic images: The Rape of Europa, her reinterpretation of a Picasso sketch of the Minotaur caressing a girl, in which the artist occupies both roles, and her recreation of Caravaggio's painting of Narcissus gazing at his own reflection in a pond, in which she replaces Narcissus with herself as Zeus in bull form. In a bronze head-and-shoulders bust in the Renaissance tradition, she combines her own feminine features with the masculine features of Zeus disguised as a bull.

The artist's first foray into performance is to be seen in her video, Ukungenisa, and related prints, in which she rehearses the steps of a bullfighter in the abandoned Praça de Touros in Maputo, the arena where black Mozambicans once fought for the entertainment of the colonial Portuguese. This attempt to take on the persona of the bullfighter represents a shift for Mntambo, whose previous work effectively invited the viewer to take her place, to step into the outline of her body as defined by the moulded cowhide.

The bullfight staged by Mntambo is an atypical one, as she confronts a bull that doesn't appear. The physical contact with the animal is sublimated by her wearing a cowhide matador outfit. The arena is empty and the public spectacle becomes a private act, a lonely dance, an intimate display of her fear, or her fearlessness. The absence of the visible threat makes it more difficult to set the fighting and the protecting apart: as confrontation and refuge, masculine and feminine, aggression and defense, they are by nature at opposite ends of the same spectrum. We are confronted with this middle space of uncertain borders, framed in the arena.

Born in Swaziland in 1982, Mntambo graduated with a Masters degree in Fine Art with distinction from the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town, in 2007. Her first solo exhibition, Ingabisa, took place at Michael Stevenson in 2007. Current and recent group exhibitions include Beauty and Pleasure in South African Contemporary Art at the Stenersen Museum, Oslo (2009); Black Womanhood: Images, icons, and ideologies of the African body at the Hood Museum, Dartmouth College, and other university art galleries in the United States (2008/9); Dak'art - the Dakar Biennale (2008); .za: giovane arte dal Sudafrica at the Palazzo delle Papesse, Siena (2008); Disguise: The art of attracting and deflecting attention at Michael Stevenson, Cape Town (2008); and Apartheid: The South African Mirror at the Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona (2007).

Mntambo will give a walkabout for the Friends of the National Gallery on Friday 24 April at 11am; cost is R20 (members and non-members).

Mntambo will exhibit concurrently with Penny Siopis. The exhibition opens on Thursday 16 April, 6 - 8pm. The gallery is open from Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, and Saturday from 10am to 1pm.