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FAENA. An exhibition by Nandipha Mntambo at the Iziko National Gallery until November 10. LUCINDA JOLLY reviews:
TWENTY-EIGHT-year-old Nandipha Mntambo is this year’s winner of The Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year for Visual Art.
This exhibition, Faena, which consists of sculptural moulds, a dvd, photographs and stitched drawings, is housed in a stark but airy, limbic lit space where shadows stretch across an open floor. The environment could be a dance floor or even, with a stretch of imagination, an empty bull ring.
While the title Faena refers to a “dance with death” which happens towards the end of a bullfight “when the matador must prove his courage and artistry”, it has other meanings too. “Duty” and “a dirty trick”.
In past exhibitions, Mntambo, who is often assumed to be a male artist, has given us photographs, bronze busts, lots of sculpted cowhides and constructions of hooves and tails. Whether she is playing Zeus, Narcissus, the raped Europa or a matador she uses her body and gender to play all the roles while exploring and subverting myths and legends. Picasso’s Minotaur series, Titian’s Rape of Europa and Caravaggio’s Narcissus are all cited as influences.
Suspended from the roof are Mntambo’s trademark moulded animal hides. She has been working with cowhide for the last seven years. Once interested in forensic pathology as a career, she chose the medium after a dream about cows.
In an interview with Ruth Simboa, Mntambo suggests that the context of her medium, cowhide has been too easily confined to stereotypical cultural projections such as lobola. Her work is more about “an experience of the animal” by humans and the position the cow occupies in different civilisations and cultures.
In this wider context it is easy to see her connection with Chinese artist Zhang Huan who also uses his body and cowhide as a medium. Huan’s use of scale and the attraction and repulsion his work generates is also found in Mntambo’s work.
Hollow shells of cowhide are moulded into the shapes of elegant, narrow-waisted, high-tailed, pert- breasted women associated with Latin dancers. The exposed fibre- glass interiors shine with a slickness reminiscent of death as in freshly skinned beast or birth as in vernix caseosa, the protective waxy substance that covers a newborn’s skin.
In an interview with Lawrence Weschler Mntambo explains how the viewer’s physical body takes the place of her body used for the moulds.
Occasionally a horn serves as an arm, but for the rest these shells are without extremities. Although static, their tails, fringes, ruches and the spilling folds – not quite of the same intensity of those that surround Bernini’s St Theresa – suggest a dynamic point at which movement is just about to commence or abruptly cease.
The included animal tails provide both a humorous counterpoint to such furred elegance and are suggestive of the therianthrope figures found in San art where it is thought that figures are drawn with hooves or horns to indicate shape-shifting shamans in a trance state.
These sculptured shells possess an interchangeable grace of both the animal within and the human animal. Themes of life and death, movement and stillness, passion and calm and the many aspects of fluid sexuality are all present.
There is something about the headless, extremity-less figures which suggest Yinka Shonibare’s mannequins dressed in period costumes fashioned from wax-resist fabric.
This fabric associated with African dress, in fact, is the product of western manufacturers. Using this contradiction Shonibare draws our attention to the artificiality of culture. Mntambo works in the same spirit which “subverts expected associations” around living “presence, femininity, sexuality and vulnerability”.
Mntambo explained to Simbao about growing up with opposites, the antidote to which “was trying to find the in-between space”. Her father was a Methodist minister who was into resolving conflicts and so that family often found themselves in situations where they were the only black family. Centrally placed in the exhibition is an elegant, female couple engaged in a mirroring of each other.
Vela Sikubhekile (Reveal yourself we are watching) is moulded from spotted cowhide and Retrato de um lutador (Portrait of a fighter) is made of a duskier hide. In a far corner a single lone figure fashioned from a paler, curlier hide, is titled Entrar (Enter).
Mntambo originally worked with darker hides and this shift may have something to do with a growing interest in the Indian god Shiva’s vehicle, a pure white bull, who was rendered immobile for behaving badly.
The title of the video Paso Doble (Double Step) is a dancing term which is based on the drama of a bullfight. The traditional roles of male and female in dance and those between the male matador and his female cloak have been subverted.
Two photographs titled Nftombi mfana and Inkunzi emnyama show Mntambo in bullfighting stances with a furred cloak around her “suit of lights”. These are from previous exhibitions and provide a link to past works.
The walls are hung with stitched “drawing” on paper. Although they lack the resolve and certainty, so present in the above works, the drawings may however hint at Mntambo’s way forward in new untried directions. We look forward.
l Iziko, National Gallery, Government Avenue, Company's Garden. Gallery hours are 10am to 5pm Tuesdays to Sundays. Call 021 467 4660.