WORDS Graham Wood PHOTOS Hayden Phillip/Southern Guid; Supplied
“Transcending Instinct”, artist Nandipha Mntambo’s first exhibition of functional sculpture on show at Southern Guild earlier this year, extended the themes of her artworks into the realm of furniture
Hot on the heels of her latest exhibition, artist and sculptor Nandipha Mntambo has released her first collection of furniture (or “functional sculpture”, as she sometimes refers to it) with design gallery Southern Guild. It consists of four once-off furniture pieces – a throne-like zebra-skin chair; a tasselled stool; a tentacled chaise; and a cocoon-like, gold-lined love seat – and two oval paintings.
Nandipha is probably best known for her distinctive cowhide works, which she moulded on her own body to create sculptural forms, at once human and animalistic. These hybrid sculptures speak not just to the brute, instinctual animal nature that humans are never far from, but also represent something of the transformational potential of in-between states: something that is always becoming something else, and constantly being renewed.
READ MORE: Local Art Exhibitions: What to See in 2022
She is a versatile multimedia artist, and has explored these and related ideas in an oeuvre that takes in painting, traditional bronze sculpture, film, performance, photography and other more experimental media, such as her “hair paintings”, which involve stitching with cow hair on paper.
She says nothing significant changed in her approach for this project – in fact, she included the paintings because she felt they belonged more to the process of creating the functional works than to an art exhibition.
In conceptualising “Transcending Instinct”, Nandipha took the opportunity to “look at certain moments in my art career, and figure out how to translate an image or a photo or a sculpture into a functional sculpture”.
There are some direct references to existing artworks in her furniture designs, as well as other, more general influences. For example, the Zangbeto figure from Benin – the raffia-clad voodoo guardian of the night, which was central to “Agoodjie”, her exhibition at Everard Read – inspired the tasselled stool. The jacket made from cow’s ears that she wore as part of the matador’s outfit in her bullfight video Ukungenisa, part of an exhibition dating back to the late noughties, inspired the folded leather shapes of the love seat. The zebra-hide throne is an inverted interpretation of an installation that was part of “Agoodjie” (itself a variation of the cowhide sculptures).
When it came to designing furniture, she says she found herself able to break the “don’t touch” barrier of the gallery space, and to consider that people would be sitting on her designs and touching them. And while she had to consider practicalities such as comfort, she found herself thinking mostly about how these items of furniture position the body. They had the potential to make you “look at your own body in a different way because of the way you have to sit in or on each piece”.
READ MORE: Artists We Love: Nandipha Mntambo
In the example of the chaise, “You’re supposed to use the tentacles as a blanket,” she says. “It’s about being immersed in the space.” The egg shape of the love seat is about “protection and being cocooned”.
“The zebra chair is an interesting one for me, because it’s about inhabiting the space of sitting on a throne,” she says. But there’s something playful and quite subversive about it, too, “because the tail sits between your legs”.
In many ways, these pieces are to furniture design what haute couture is to fashion: a diversion into
the realm of art and ideas. The pieces are part of an exploration of how our environments and the objects in them affect the way we move, how we feel, even how we think of ourselves. Like those early cowhide castings, the pieces in this exhibition engage with provisional aspects of our identities, disrupt the roles we play and, perhaps most importantly, embody the potential for transformation: reminding us that who we are and what we feel is never fixed or final, but always in flux, always becoming something else.