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The Peculiar Language of Material

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Nandipha Mntambo's work signals a complex relationship between metaphor and material, writes Nomusa Makhubu

It's not quite the silence, but the semantic traffic that confounds Nandipha Mntambo's work. In an essay for the Standard Bank Young Artist Award 2011 catalogue, "The Silence that No One Talks About", David Elliott points out the significance and amplification of silence in works such as Silent Embrace (2007) as well as Silence and Dreams (2008).1

Indeed, Mntambo herself asserts that there is "a silence in the work that exists between us."2 But what if we don't take the artist's word for it? In speaking with Mntambo I realise that oftentimes a variety of narratives wrap themselves around her work just as the cowhide cloaks the bodies that we do not see. Far from being simply "the cowhide girl", Mntambo is a versatile artist, working in sculpture, photography, painting, printmaking, performance and video. This versatility draws attention to the medium and, more specifically, the anecdotes it attracts. While an interest in Mntambo's development of new work is important, it is necessary to rethink her existing oeuvre and, in the process, to reveal the cultural currency wrapped around material – a few sacred cows must be killed and a few myths done away with. 

When Material Remembers – A Subjectivity of Objects?

In a recent conversation with Mntambo, two heuristic devices arose for re-envisioning this oeuvre: the focus on the material and the logic constructed around it. Mntambo links what she views as the "memory of material" to memory in general, explaining that the hide recollects the shape of the previous object around which it was moulded. When made wet, the material loses the shape of the mould but maintains some aspects of the object on which it was first placed. Apart from what it simulates and implicates – the body – the material itself in Mntambo's work is granted a subjectivity or "agency", as Mntambo calls it, which makes the hide more than just a threshold between the invisible body and the viewer. In this sense, the idea that material remembers suggests that material "thinks". This alludes to the mediation of human agency in the valuation of objects within a matrix of socio-political structures. It is thus no accident that, in considering the constellation of meanings (sometimes unintended) generated by the work, analyses of Mntambo's art point to all forms of traditions related to cattle and the female or male body. These include the tauromaquia (bullfighting) of the South Americas, Portugal and Spain, as well as the Nguni attribution of material value to the cattle and their use of the cattle hide as battle-shields and clothing (with particular colours as forms of identification). Further, cattle also serve as metaphor in many idioms and proverbs. Engagement with Mntambo's work thus requires a disentanglement of the multiplicity of languages that envelop the work.
All kinds of captivating narratives drifting in my own mind regarding the symbolism of cattle had to be suspended. Mntambo's work always made me think of Nongqawuse, the young Xhosa girl whose prophecy that the dead will be resurrected caused about 100 000 Xhosa to kill their cattle. The Xhosa nation was divided into "believers" (amathamba or "soft ones") and "unbelievers" (amagogotya or "hard ones").3 The famine that resulted led to the decimation of Xhosa populations, loss of land (which "cleared the way for white settlement"4), taxation and forced labour. This part of history has semantic links to Mntambo's work. The death of cattle in Xhosa culture symbolises the end of the agrarian and collectivist way of living. The cattle, in this sense, are inextricably linked to material value. The often-floating hide in Mntambo's work appears to have an incredible lightness even though the material is weighty, which makes it seem an allegory of resurrection. Furthermore, the hide, though soft while it is being processed, soon becomes hard, even though the undulating folds of the sculptures appear soft. This to me seemed an oblique reference to amathamba and amagogotya. It is the process of transformation from soft to hard, light to heavy, alive to dead and vice versa that remains the key. 
Like a magic trick, the secret is concealed in the performance. In the video recorded in Maputo, Mozambique, entitled Praça de Touros II (2008), the killing of the bull in the tradition bull fighting (tauromaquia) is more performative than the killing that makes the hide available for Mntambo's sculptural works. In tauromaquia there is magic in the performance of waving the red cape that conceals parts of the process of killing. The torero (bullfighter) possesses both magical and performative power. In Praça de Touros II, the artist stands in the place of the torero and also, through her wearing of a cowhide coat, in the place of the bull.

There is, one can argue, a permutation at work that resembles what John Pemberton calls "material symbolization".5 
Though a multitude of references resonate in Mntambo's work, they also need to be set aside if one is to understand what Mntambo means by the "agency of the material". Not only does the "material remember" but it is also powerful enough to evoke memory and awaken history in extraordinary ways.
Read more in the current issue of Art South Africa magazine (10.4), in stores now.

Nomusa Makhubu