There is a strange balance that exists between the intensely macabre and the bizarrely beautiful in artist Nandipha Mntambo’s oeuvre. Invariably it leaves you haunted yet in awe of her distinctive aesthetic and technique that combines the use of cowhides, and hair with clever juxtaposition and positioning. One can only interpret her work as it is, a spectacle that leaves you repulsed or that piques your interest for the grotesque, yet profound.
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Nandipha Mntambo, Enchantment , 2012. Courtesy of the Artist and Stevenson | Johannesburg & Cape Town.
Mntambo’s work defies the seemingly easy categorisations. Focusing largely on the body and materiality, in particular her deft usage of cowhide, has brought her into the company of other artists such as Zhang Huan and Nicholas Hlobo.
Those quick to assume that her engagement includes a black feminist agenda or notions of ‘Africanicity’, that her bovine-like characters, installations and paraphernalia speak of a pastoral, traditional or cultural heritage such as lobola  need only seek further into her work to discover otherwise.
Drawing on the subject matter of identity, her work often delves into notions such as the spoken and unspoken, the visible and invisible, the personal and public; within these dichotomies, those in between places and spaces, Mntambo’s ideas flourish.
She is a rising contemporary artist, developing her practice and language through work that is indeed equally intriguing as it is challenging. In 2011, she won South Africa’s coveted Standard Bank Young Artist Award, a prize that many of South Africa’s leading artists have won.
Mntambo’s art subverts cultural signifiers like the cowhide to create work that pushes boundaries with a distinct look and feel, all the while challenging how material is used, interpreted and understood. The aesthetic influences however are best described by the artist herself.
Natasha Maradzika | What lead you to the Fine Arts and informs some of your aesthetic choices?
Nandipha Mntambo | I suppose I came to be an artist through a combination of chance and hard work.. I was interested in forensics and science as possible career paths. I was lucky to have done art in High School so had a small portfolio of work ; I took a chance and sent it to The Michaelis School of Art at the University of Cape Town. The accepted me and I completed both my Undergraduate studies and my Masters there.
NM | How did you come up with a distinctive aesthetic and use of materials such as cow hide?
NM | I enjoy chemical processes. I was never really interested in ‘conventional’ materials and was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with a taxidermist for a while. The thin line that exists between our understanding of attraction and repulsion has always been of interest to me. I developed my aesthetic in an attempt to destabilise/push this boundary while challenging how art material and the product are understood.
NM | How is this aesthetic then linked to your exploration of the female form within a contemporary African context and why would you say this treatment is the same and different to what other South African artists like Nicholas Hlobo are currently doing?
NM | My work was never meant to be a direct exploration of the African Female body. I just happen to be African and female and use my body in my art making process.
NM | Your work has been described as having “that sense of unease”, that elevates your work “above the level of the commonplace into the ranks of the astonishing.” Would you agree with this and would you say this is intentional in your treatment?
NM | I’ve always been interested in challenging our understanding of boundaries. Pushing that thin line that exists between attraction/repulsion, animal/human, male/female. It’s wonderful that my intentions are clear within how my work is read.
NM | Where do you see your art going in terms of audience reach? Where would you like it to go?
NM | Complicated to answer. My art career has worked very organically.
NM | What would you say are some of the biggest misconceptions about your work?
NM | That it has a Feminist agenda at its core.
NM | Which artists would you like to spend a day with / have dinner with and why?
NM | Jane Alexander and Salvador Dali – I respect them and love their work.
NM | What are you listening to and reading right now?
NM | Miles Davis – Bitches Brew and Frida Kahlo’s Biography.
Born in Swaziland in 1982, Nandipha Mntambo graduated with a Masters in Fine Art (with distinction) from the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town, in 2007. In 2006 she was one of five young artists selected for the MTN New Contemporaries exhibition at Johannesburg Art Gallery. She was the Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Art in 2011. Group exhibitions include the 17th Biennale of Sydney and the 9th Dakar Biennale in 2010; Peekaboo: Current South Africa at the Tennis Palace Art Museum, Helsinki (2010); Life Less Ordinary: Performance and display in South African art at the Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham, UK (2009); Undercover: Performing and Transforming Black Female Identities at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Atlanta, GA (2009); Les Rencontres de Bamako biennial of African photography, Bamako, Mali (7-13 November); Beauty and Pleasure in South African Contemporary Art at the Stenersen Museum, Oslo (2009); .ZA: giovane arte dal Sudafrica, Palazzo delle Papesse, Siena (2008); and Apartheid: The South African Mirror at the Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona (2008).
She is represented by Stevenson
For more insight | nandipha-mntambo.com
 Lobola, a southern African tradition where the groom’s family pays the bride’s family a sum, historically paid with cows.
Recommended reading | An in-depth look at the work of Nandipha Mntambo, with texts by Ruth Simbao and David Elliot | Read
Written by Kudi Natasha Maradzika.
Swaziland| Doing our part to combat immappancy
All images courtesy of the artist and Stevenson | Johannesburg and Cape Town. All rights reserved.