Nandipha Mntambo transcends instinct at Southern Guild

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Nandipha Mntambo's cowhide sculptures have been described as “vacated second skins” – rigidly preserved in resin but alive with movement. (Southern Guild/ Zander Opperman)
Nandipha Mntambo's cowhide sculptures have been described as “vacated second skins” – rigidly preserved in resin but alive with movement. (Southern Guild/ Zander Opperman)
  • Molded from her own form, Nandipha Mntambo's cowhide sculptures have been described as alive with movement.
  • Here she explores how key ideas, materials and forms from her archive could be functional in the everyday.
  •  But this exhibition is no slick, ‘statement piece’. The animals' presence is keenly felt, intentionally manipulated but very much there.   


A multidisciplinary artist, Nandipha Mntambo rose to prominence through her cowhide sculptures. Molded from her own form, her cowhide sculptures have been described as “vacated second skins” – rigidly preserved in resin but alive with movement. After high school she originally intended to study forensic pathology, but changed courses that saw her obtaining a Master’s in Fine Art from the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art in 2007. With an acute interest in the human body her work exists through sculpture, photography, video and mixed-media works to make an ever-growing oeuvre.  

In 2011 she was awarded the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Art for which she made the traveling exhibition Faena. She has had held multiple solo shows within South Africa and two at Andréhn-Schiptjenko in Stockholm. Her work was featured at the Norval Foundation’s inaugural exhibitions. Other notable group exhibitions include ?Materiality at the Iziko South African National Gallery; Ngoma: Art and Cosmology?at the Johannesburg Art Gallery; ?IncarNations: African Art as Philosophy?at the BOZAR Centre for Arts in Brussels; Made Visible: Contemporary South African Fashion and Identity?at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. There are many others.   

For her latest project, Mntambo collaborated with Southern Guild to explore how key ideas, materials and forms from her archive could be functional in the everyday. Situated in Cape Town at the Silo District, Southern Guild commissions, produces and exhibits collectible furnishings. Founded in 2008 by Treyvn and Julian McGowan, the gallery has helped shape the world’s idea of contemporary African design.    “Lately, my interest lies in re-examining the concept of shape and forms and reflecting on my earlier sculpture and photography, using my current practice as a lens to look back,” says Mntambo. The result is Transcending Instinct: an presentation of large-scale seating objects and paintings by Mntambo. Exhibited from 10 February to 8 April 2022, Transcending Instinct also marks her first venture into functional sculpture. 

Each of the four seating objects in Transcending Instinct takes as its departure point a recurring motif or modality from Mntambo’s work. From the hut-like uMcedo sculpture of 2009 to more recent ink drawings and oil paintings, the hunched, rounded or hump shape that has appeared in various forms is echoed in a rocking stool adorned with hanging leather tassels.  


Then the stool’s shape brings to mind Zangbeto (another recent interest of Mntambo’s), a voodoo spirit regarded by the Ogu or Egun people of Benin as?guardians of the night, given physical form through elaborate raffia costumes.?  

Apart from the rocking chair, the hump shape is also cited, albeit inverted, in a large bowl-like chair whose rugged leather exterior seems to engulf the sitter. And although it may go unnoticed, among the ruffles of leather is another Mntambo motif: folded “ears” in reference to the Inkunzi Emnyama coat she made using cow ears (2009). As much a cocoon of comfort as an object of unsettlement, the piece encouraged those who observe or engage with it to consider the animals whose skins surround our everyday.  

While it runs throughout the exhibition, the tension between human and animal is perhaps most marked in a zebra-skin chair that began as a sculpture in Mntambo’s studio. Its original form, in which the animal appeared to be bucking, has been turned upside down and “tamed” with traditional upholstery springing and various layers of foam cushioning to render its curves comfortable. But this is no slick, sanitized animal-print ‘statement piece’ – the animal’s presence is keenly felt, intentionally manipulated but very much there.   

Mntambo’s series of abstract “hair drawings” combining ink and cow hair sewn into paper inspire an oblong timber chaise (carved by Adam Birch), whose sheepskin seat erupts in a profusion of long leather strands. Like the other works, the chaise both holds and obstructs the body.

Behind the scenes of Nandipha Mnthambo's Transcend
Behind the scenes of Nandipha Mnthambo's Transcending Instinct. (Zander Opperman/ Southern Guild)


Considering the importance of the body in her practice, making sculptural seats brings her full circle. It opens up a different terrain by inviting the audience to literally occupy the space of her own body, thus recasting themselves in a way that is at once familiar and wholly unexpected.  

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