The sharply stylish Nandipha Mntambo, elegantly sipping a cocktail, doesn't look as if she would set foot in a bullring.

Unlikely as it sounds, the bullfighter in this Cape Town artist is on a winning streak at the moment. All in the name of her art. "For the past year," she tells me in the long shadow of Table Mountain: "I've been fascinated with the idea of fighting other people and yourself."

During a visit to Mozambique, 18 months ago, she encountered bull fighting. The colonial origins of this sport intrigued her so much that she went to Portugal in search of bullfighters. Mission accomplished, thanks to bull breeders in a small town, she inquired about the possibility of training as a matador.

"The first response was 'No' because I was a female. It had nothing to do with skin colour."

Undaunted, Nandi Mntambo plans to return next year. It's not that she's interested in the killing of the animal but "the interchangeable and shared feelings, the excitement, the fear", which the animal and the bullfighter experience.

She's already transformed into both the fighter and the animal herself. Europa, currently part of disturbance at the Johannesburg art Gallery, features a large print of this work which also graced the cover of Art SouthAfrica.

Through photographic techniques, in collaboration with photographer Tony Meintjes, she morphed into a bull. The animal's head, which she found at the abattoir, was white and had to be dyed black.

The coincidental link with Greek mythology - Europa was seduced by Zeus who was disguised as a white bull - converged with her concept of metamorphosis and her fascination with Minotaurs.

"Europa became a queen of some island. I'm interested in the idea of seduction and power."

Her distinctive work involving cowhide began when she was completing her masters at UCT's Michaelis School of Fine Art. ""It was very strange. I was very stressed out in fourth year. I had to have a huge body of work. I dreamed of cows and skins. I phoned my father and said we need to find some cows. I started working with a taxidermist at Iziko and began thinking about female bodies and waxing. I don't have a lot of hair. I was thinking of making myself into a hairy being."

The hides, moulded on casts of her and her mother's bodies, can be worn as sculptures. "But people will see me naked," was the matriarch's reaction. Despite her qualms, her body has been transformed and, with her daughter's, displayed as far away as Barcelona.

The skins are tanned by the artist in her studio. "They need to be hard and rigid; they don't smell like leather, they smell like a cow." And she's not fussy about the breed - Nguni or Friesland? "I don't know. I just pick them in a warehouse."

There's no pigeon-holing the 26-year-old Ms Mntambo. "I don't work in the same way all the time," she confesses, but whatever she does, the gender warrior attracts attention. "I've been surprised how males and young women don't know how to react. Black males in particular have a hard time. They become quite confused."

Her world view was partly formed as the Swaziland-born daughter (one of three children) of a priest. The family moved every five years. Which raises the question of her father's response to her art.

"He's allowed us to make our own lives. I think he struggles with some of my work. He can see it's a career and I'm sort of making a success."

On her international travels, unlike Steven Cohen, she hasn't had problems with customs about her unusual luggage since "the cow isn't an endangered species". Amazingly, Mntambo is a bit shy to do live performance and finds producing still images easier. Video is now part of her process. Her three-part series began in Mozambique, "with me fighting myself. No bull, just me." The second may be in Portugal (with a bull) and the third? "I don't know yet".

Then she rushed back to resume work on her show for the Michael Stevenson Gallery.

Will it moo? Or bellow? Maybe both. Or none of the above.

  • See disturbance - Contemporary Art from Scandinavia and South Africa, at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, Joubert Park, till March 1 2009. Gallery hours: Tuesdays to Sundays between 10am and 5pm. Entrance is free.