Award-winning visual artist, Nandipha Mntambo, relives her artistic journey with upcoming visual artist, Mzoxolo X Mayongo.
By: Mzoxolo X Mayongo
Main image by: Elsa Young
Ever since she scooped the highly coveted “Standard Bank Young Artist Award in Visual Art”, in 2011, Nandipha has been one of the most celebrated black female artists in the African diaspora.
Nandipha broke new artistic ground by using cow-hide as her main material in her sculptures, videos, photographs and paintings, which deal with gender identity, sexuality, attraction and repulsion, human and animal.
The artist’s cow-hide sculptures have become part of a prolific collection that defines the South African contemporary visual art landscape in the past decade and half. Her work has been featured in exhibitions across the world, including Stockholm, Paris, Brooklyn and Moscow, to name a few. A solo exhibition of her solo work, Material Value, was also shown at the Zeitz Museum of contemporary Art Africa, in Cape Town.
Mzoxolo X Mayongo is a Johannesburg conceptual artist & activist who uses photography, installations, sculpture and videos as his mediums. His debut work, Ubukho Bendoda, explores sexual orientation, masculinity and femininity. He has shown at the recent Grahamstown National Arts Festival and The Julie Miller Investment Art Institute.
Mzoxolo also hosts the “TalkingMen” seminar which invites men to join in discussions that unpack dialogues about what it means to be a man in today’s society.
Mzoxolo sat down with Nandipha to explore her journey as an African female artist.
Mzoxolo X Mayongo: Through research I have come to learn that you want to be known as more than just a sculptor.
Nandipha Mntambo: I suppose at this moment I’m a visual practitioner, rather than a sculptor or anything too specific. I trained as a sculptor. In my early years of my career that is how I would have described myself. But, I think at this moment because of the many different artistic things I have explored, and also the many projects I’m currently involved in, a visual practitioner makes more sense.
MxM: Congratulation on the launch of your new collaborative venture, Dissonance, a limited-edition bespoke fragrance. Tell us more about it?
NM: Dissonance is not a perfume. I call it a ‘scent’ as oppose to anything else. The reason why I use the word scent is because for me it is about a whole experience of something you already know.
The way I work, especially in my sculptural work, in the cow-hide – for which I am now known for – it’s always been a sensory experience. There are smells, there are textures and sounds that are kind of associated with making the work. What I always had at the back of my mind is this sensory way of working. The scent for me is about that experience.
Working with somebody who specifically focuses on smell, and then creating a package that is not just about smell only. It’s about the texture of the packaging we have chosen. It’s about the kind visuals and colour schemes we’ve chosen. The scent also comes with a set of complementary lithographic prints, an artistic element of things.
I’ve always thought of things in a way where I’ve been trying to uncover the intersection and meeting point of things that seem to be in opposition. I wanted a unisex scent, so this is why I’m not using the word perfume. It is something you can spray on your skin and also use as a room fragrance, at the same time. It is more about a lifestyle, or an extended sensory experience.
MxM: So, there’s a common thread or themes on identity, exploring the binaries and interest in opposition, which speak on your early work of the cow-hide?
NM: Because of how I grew up and how I was educated, I never understood the world to be one particular way. Never understood one answer to a question. So, my interest has always been about understanding the underlying issue. Or you yourself, the space where you cannot identify what attracts you and repels you, uncovering that intersection, the grey area, where these opposition of male and female, human and animal, attraction or repulsion exist and lost in between.
I suppose having a science background in forensic informs my process of working with the cow-hide. It is quite a scientific and chemical intensive way of working with this organic material, to manipulate and negotiate this cow-hide into this female figure. There’s element of these contrasting fields of art and science, merging….. The two have helped me uncover and explore these ideas.
MxM: You have always been in charge of defining your own narrative, to tell your story and position your work. How important is that for an artist?
NM: The reality is we initially do not really know what it is what we are doing. But, if you also allow yourself to be swayed and defined by others you will find yourself in a state of confusion. The mistake I saw happening a lot because I initially didn’t have the clear language to define my work I relied on the curators and galleries, or lectures or older artist and everyone to help me understand and see my work, thereby they defined my work. This is actually not the same way you know your work.
Of course, you are learning all the time but at least know fifty percent and the process will help you define it as you go along, it helps. So, it is very important to be clear with yourself and define your own narrative.
MxM: Self-taught artist vs formally educated artist via institution. There seems to be a distinction between these two by the industry and are treated differently more so by galleries. What’s your take on that as an educated artist?
NM: I think the intersection or the question comes once you decide to be a commercial artist in a commercial gallery. There’s the expectation that you’ll be in certain art fairs, have a certain number of exhibitions a year, a publication or two… I think there has to be an understanding from you that you need to have a very clear language around how you explain or describe your work.
A framework of what you want people to take from your work versus what you don’t want them to take from it. Art has an unspoken language that you as an artist need to access and understand. You learn such from formal study. It’s a catch 22 in that.
Yes, I’d advise schooling because we function within a space that is not just about emotion, not just about technical skill, where you have to be able to contextualise your work within the arts and socio or historical context. You have to be very aware of all that.
MxM: Cow-hide girl? How do you relate and celebrate the material that established you as an artist, and navigate outside being boxed in it?
NM: It’s an interesting tension for me, probably because it’s something I’ll never get to the bottom of. Maybe my response to it is to quietly work on so many different things that all relate to the central theme, but answering the question in many different ways.
MxM: Gaining status of being a celebrated artist, how does it help or affect your career?
NM: It’s a difficult question to answer. The reality is that it all happened for me while I was very young. There’s always been happiness about it for me, but then an anxiety too around how to sustain a certain momentum.
Because we don’t see, or at least within the context of South African arts, I don’t know of many artists who’ve had long extensive careers. Granted, there is William Kentridge and Marlene Duma, but they had their time outside of the country. And in terms of how their work was propelled, how they were able to enter the art world, the galleries that represented them and all these kinds of things are a totally different experience from own.
So, there’s happiness but also anxiety… because, if you look internationally at Yayoi Kusama, who’s almost 90 years old, within the last 8 years she’s has garnered much more attention- resurgence in her career. Granted she has been working for a longtime, honing her skills over the decades she’s been a practising artist.
I would say it’s kind of scary but mostly motivational.