From the bovine to the sublime

2011-08-12 11:48

By the time I saw Nandipha Mntambo’s Faena exhibition ­during the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown it was sold out.

After spending some time stepping around the exhibition’s central figures, I could easily understand why.

I wanted to take one home, gaze at it forever and unravel what makes it simultaneously attractive and repellent.

Since she began her visual arts journey, Mntambo has been exploring cowhide as a medium.

A natural progression of her obsession with the ­bovine has brought her to the sport of bullfighting in recent times and Faena is a continuation of this.

Faena refers to the final dance between the matador and the bull before the matador delivers the death blow.

What her exhibition, then is, is an exploration of this highly stylised, culturally sanctioned death within the context of Mntambo’s ongoing concerns.

Of her choice of medium, Mntambo says in the catalogue: “I have used cowhide as a means to subvert expected associations with corporeal presence, femininity, sexuality and vulnerability.”

Mntambo graduated with a masters degree from Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town in 2007 and has since continued to develop her visual language with her prowess with cowhide to the point where the figures she has ­created for this latest exhibition almost breathe and move.

The cowhide sculptures that form the central point of the exhibition draw the viewer’s eye, make the observer want to join in the dance that appears to be in mid-step.

Mntambo uses a variety of platforms for this exhibition, one of the criteria for a Standard Bank Young Artist winner is being able to use an existing material differently.

Apart from the sculptures, there are paintings that feature real cow hair, photography featuring Mntambo taking on the role of the bull in the fight as well as a video installation.

Though it is her sculptures that demand attention first, the other media all reinforce the visual message that is ­embedded in Faena.

Her message, told using the language of the dance of death, is the marriage of the human and animal, how the lines are blurred between cultures, ­between the male and female, and between the inside and the outside.

This blurring is evident in all her figures – it is impossible to pinpoint gender in any real way, rather it is the role that determines the gender. Which is how Mntambo ­invites the viewer to challenge their views on gender stereotyping.

The inclusion of a video of a version of the Spanish dance that mimics the bullfight, the Pasodoble, plays with the concept of shadows and ­continues her theme of ­juggling gender roles as the two dancers are both women.

It also explores death through a dance that is a ­representation of it and the ­shadows refer to the continuation of life after death.

Her photographs are easy to read for those familiar with her work, which constantly pushes boundaries and invites, sometimes cajoles, the viewer into seeing the interconnectedness of all of us, our environment and our fellow creatures.

Mntambo is an exciting young artist who is not yet 30, but who has already ­developed a taboo-breaking, line-crossing visual language of her own that is well worth listening to whether you are a fine art fundi or an interested bystander.

» Faena is on at the Nelson ­Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum in Port Elizabeth until September 4.

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