Stages, saints and sinners: Faena shows Mntambo’s mastery of cowhide

2011-07-04 09:57

Nandipha Mntambo’s cowhide figures beckon, inviting the bystander to join the dance. It’s day two at the National Arts Festival and a walkabout of Mntambo’s Faena ties into the trend that seems to be pulling the festival together.

A blurring of differences and the creation of something surprising through the process.

The Standard Bank Young Artist winner for Visual Art, Mntambo’s festival exhibition Faena is already bought out – the second time in history this has happened at the festival, the first time was the work of Nicholas Hlobo. It’s a good fit for the Puma Art Collection which collects contemporary South African artists primarily.

The artist continues her manipulation of cowhide and her fascination with the bullfight, this time concentrating on the culturally sanctioned, highly stylised Dance of Death, the final showdown between the bull and the matador.

Faena not only shows Mntambo’s mastery of cowhide as a material, but of media too. On the walls hang four paintings incorporating cowhair, as well as two photographs of the artist wearing cowhide and assuming the pose of the bull – another blurring, of the line between human and animal.

Then there’s the video installation, of two women (though you only see their faces in a flash) doing the pasodoble, the dance modelled on the bullfight.
Gender is another line Mntambo is interested in blurring.

For those who have followed this artist’s progression, Faena is a must see and if you’ve never seen her incredible work get the Monument on Wednesday at 10am or Thursday at 2pm for a walkabout with the artist.

Bubbling over with interpretations and ideas after Faena, we headed to a local spot for a delicious bowl of homemade soup to get us through the next show – Purgatorio, making its South African debut at the festival.

Little did we know how much we would need that soul-nourishing soup to get through Purgatorio, which isn’t on again at the festival.

Capetonians though can catch Ariel Dorfman’s powerful two-hander at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town soon.

Inspired by the Greek myth of Jason and Medea, you don’t need to know a thing about it to be sucked into this, which holds your attention with a painful, vice-like grip as the horror unfolds.

Two souls are in purgatory, each has to forgive the other and themselves before they can move on – take another body and, as one character puts it, get on with life.

A strange thing for a man who took his own life to say.

Dawid Minnaar and Terry Norton star and give incredibly powerful performances, each taking on two roles, but both of which are the same character.

Each character is locked in a bleak room with nothing to do but confess to their respective interrogator.

Though dressed like therapists, the interrogators cajole and bully their subjects to relive the terrible things they have done, to say them out loud and somehow find redemption and ultimately forgiveness.

The hall where the play was, was quiet after the applause, and it was full. There were murmurs and whispers, but no laughing and loud talking, everyone was absorbing the shock of the characters’ revelations or transposing the terrible things that happened in their lives onto their own and feeling shocked at the emotions that evoked.

To absorb it, we had to drink wine, to give our poor saturated brains a chance to return to sensibility before the next show, The Table.

The Table, Sylvaine Strike’s new piece is also full of revelations, family skeletons being dragged out of the cupboard but with many more breaks for a good laugh.

Strike’s background in physical theatre and mime mean that every emotion is made manifest in movement.

The play begins with a Jewish woman preparing for the Sabbath meal with her domestic worker Flora. The pair seem to have an easy, supportive relationship.

Then the children start turning up – the eldest son, a hypochondriac who has been dumped by his wife; the youngest who is jittery about something, using keycards to say ridiculously simply things right; the daughter who comfort eats on a huge scale; and then the final guest at the table, Flora’s glamorous daughter who is studying law in New York.

With this distinctly South African family poised to eat, the secrets and recriminations start dribbling out as the soup is served, more revelations escape over the herring and by pudding the stage – like the happy family is a mess of spilled emotion.

The best line, addressed to Mama Sara, after the siblings have had a rough and tumble over the dessert is: “You can’t just shut your door and leave us alone with the sweets.”

Funny and poignant this cast of actors is held together by the luminescent Annabel Linder as the matriarch of the family, though even that line is blurred as Flora too functions as another mother to all the children. Another distinctly South African family trait.

The Table, which moves to the Market Theatre having handed over its Grahamstown venue to the next show, is another brilliant piece of work from one of the country’s most interesting artists.

Follow me on Twitter @GayleMahala

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