Nandipha Mntambo’s latest exhibition Transcending Instinct sees the artist exploring new territory with a collection of idiosyncratic pieces, and a design language that challenges our thinking about the boundaries between fine art and furniture. Followers of this artist’s career will find familiarity in Mntambo’s use of tactile textures — a continuation of her methodology from her previous works.
Conceptually working within a three-dimensional context comes as second nature to Mntambo, whose primary training is in sculpture. In close to two decades, Mntambo’s powerful body of work spans a spectrum of materials and mediums, working through themes of gender, finding balance between humanness and animality, and the fluidity with which identity can be experienced. While past works were made for a more fineart setting — not to be touched but made specifically to be viewed within galleries and museums — Mntambo’s art has often explored the boundless energy of her own body, something we see in Material Value (2017) and Agoodjie (2021).
This time we, the audience, are inspired to think about our own bodies, and how they relate to the objects in the room. “There’s this push and pull of being attracted to something and wanting to touch it, but then realising that because of the context within which it is displayed, you’re not allowed to,” says Mntambo. “With this project I really wanted people to be able to engage in a real sense. Not just in terms of being able to use it for something, but an actual tactile experience of the work.” This moment becomes a point of departure for the artist. Moving beyond her studio space and thinking beyond traditional interactions with art on display, Mntambo experimented with different heights, textures and volumes — as well as different types of wood — for a multisensory exhibition where touching and feeling become part of a greater language communicated through each piece.
Having worked with hide which she tans herself, a process that is both very physical and tactile, adding movement into functional sculpture wasn’t too far fetched from what Mntambo has done before. In thinking about form and shape Mntambo finds that her work, from painting to printmaking, has been moving towards more abstract forms over the years. “To me it’s about transcending certain stereotypes or certain languages, but at the same time there’s always been that line. Or at least that thread that’s always been within everything that I’ve done so far”. With Transcending Instinct we also experience ways in which each of the designed pieces references and revisits themes and materiality that she has worked through before — one would say that Mntambo is in conversation with her past selves.
For instance, the Serenity chair, made of big black tentacles, emerges out of a drawing she made of hair years ago. The Love Quest chair, with gold inner lining and ruffles on the outside, emanates a jacket that she made from an assemblage of cow ears for one of her earlier performances Inkunzi Emnyama (2009). Other inspiration comes from ideas that she has found interest in over time, more recently on her travels to Benin, where she encountered the Zangbeto deities — guardians of the Egun who, during the masquerades, move in swirls of raffia. These encounters have found place within this exhibition.
Reflecting on the history of her own work, Mntambo says it was not always easy finding the tools of expressing her work and what she was doing with her hands. “You know, you can have thoughts of making something and you make it, but then you don’t necessarily have the spoken language to express what it is or how you want it to be seen or understood.”Doing a Master’s in Fine Art helped her shift her work within a certain realm. At the same time in her younger years, Mntambo found herself running away from a lot of things, specifically labels such as ‘black female artist’, and any other ways in which her practice and specific use of materiality were often stereotyped. Her resistance towards accepting those labels helped her to better develop her practice , in finding her preferred material and developing ways of using it. “There came a time when I needed to accept that in reality, that because of the fact that I am black and I am female, and I do come from Africa and I’m living in SA , there are certain inescapable things, like a cultural capital that we all carry, regardless of where you come from. It is universal”. That acceptance has helped her shift her own understanding of a whole spectrum of elements and ideas specifically in relation to how she allows herself and her work to be classified, how she speaks about her work and how that work is portrayed. These are ideas that she continues to shift and transcend.
* Nandipha Mntambo’s Transcending Instinct is at the Southern Guild in Cape Town until March 31.