Nandipha Mntambo

I choose to create work in cowhide; this material is one that has historical associations and is linked to my cultural background in various ways but through my use of it, exists and is considered within a context that is also removed from these aspects. Subjective views of the significance of this material, drawn from the past but with reference to the present, impact on both understanding and engagement with the work I create.

My artistic creation is always greatly informed by the process leading up to the final art piece. I thus choose to purchase my material as raw as possible in order to fully engage with the amount of influence I have over the final product. My intention is to explore the physical and tactile properties of hide and aspects of control that allow or prevent me from manipulating this material in the context of the female body and contemporary art. I have used cowhide as a means to subvert expected associations with corporeal presence, femininity, sexuality and vulnerability.

The work I create seeks to challenge and subvert preconceptions regarding representation of the female body. The hair-covered but arguably beautiful female figures I create disrupt perceptions of attraction and repulsion. Being confronted with a hairy life-size woman which is not necessarily unequivocally repulsive causes various reactions, which have encouraged some viewers to re-think their ideas of the desirable. This image does not conform to conventional ideas of female beauty. Initial reactions to my first installations highlighted the almost invisible line between the attractive and repulsive. Some viewers of this work were intrigued by the shiny, soft looking surface of the hair on the sculptures and the form, which suggests a sensual quality and yet were simultaneously disgusted by the residues of the scent of dung and fat that filled the room.

This mixed reaction of intrigue and disgust to the work I create parallels my experiences while I am creating each piece. Interest in the chemical process as well as experimenting with my control over organic material and by implication, control over my body, intrigues me enough to compel my continued work in this medium. Being confronted with the repulsive smell and textures of salted fat, half dried cow dung and musty wet hair causes repeated repulsion but also a consciousness of the corporeal.

An aspect of my choice of cowhide as a medium is the exploration of skin as a sight of memory, a store of genetic material and protective membrane. This is important to my understanding and interpretation of the body generally and more specifically, my own body. Most of the works are cast from my body, but Beginning of the Empire is cast from that of my mother. Our bodies share genetic material and physiological and ancestral memory. Her body and her skin, has been the protective membrane for my gestation.

By experimenting with the process of tanning and casting cowhide into a shape, allowing drying, then re-wetting it, I have discovered that the hide also remembers the shape it was previously moulded onto and retains elements of this even in its new shape. This 'material memory' that seems to live within the skin cells of the animals I use means that the medium itself can be seen as one that physically engages the concept of recollection, both on a cellular and physical level

The process of working with a sculpted mould (positive) that is discarded after being used to create an end product that is a cast (negative) is a continuation of my interest in the residue. Just as the skins of the animals I use are the residues of an animal that was once alive, the final art pieces I create are the residues of the replication of my or my mother's body. What viewers see is the absence of the physical body of both our bodies as well as the animal I have used. This implied body needs the viewer to complete the picture. Individual observations of the work enable the sculptures to be completed and interpreted in different ways through the way in which the viewer encounters them. The viewer forms a relationship to the suspended life size 'spaces' the sculptures provide both within the hollows of the figures, and the negative space between them.

Through the interpretation of my own and my mother's bodies, I have taken control of their representation, and directed the way in which viewers encounter these forms both in their material realization and installation. The figures although hanging, have assertiveness in their posture and are intended to be sensuous but ambiguous in their presence. While these fragments of female form may elicit repulsion, it is repulsion intended to evoke the residue of life and the actual presence of the corporeal rather than the female body as victim, damaged, abused or abject.

Nandipha Mntambo


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2007 Michael Stevenson. All rights reserved.