South African artist Nandipha Mntambo’s first venture into functional sculpture, now on view at Cape Town design gallery Southern Guild (until 8 April 2022), features four extraordinary Afropunk interpretations of classic seating. Alongside a shaggy stool inspired by traditional raffia costumes worn by West African village guardians, Mntambo has created a throne-like chair made from zebra hide, and crafted a eucalyptus-wood chaise longue featuring 60 hand-rolled leather tentacles.
Nandipha Mntambo’s furniture designs
The largest of the four seating pieces is a spacious cocoon loveseat. Its leather interior is a soft gold, the outcome of a metallic tanning process, while the exterior is festooned with more than 300 chocolate-brown adornments. The folded leather pieces vaguely resemble the colourful limbs of irises, but are in fact approximations of cow ears.
Mntambo, whose Johannesburg home is decorated with midcentury Scandinavian furniture, previously used actual cow ears in a coat worn in a photographic self-portrait, made more than a decade ago. Despite the artist’s frequent use of cowhide in her much-admired sculptures, installations and related film and photographic series, the treated leather that recurs across her seating was a new material for her.
‘Processed leather is not my thing,’ says Mntambo, whose hide sculptures present the illusion of wrinkled softness despite being resolutely firm and unyielding. ‘Translating the ears that in my studio would be rock hard into something that is softer, more tactile and functional was an interesting challenge.’
Developing a leather furniture collection
Liz and Roger James of Cape Town studio Leather Walls helped Mntambo with the practicalities of transforming her Afropunk ideas into functional seating. The couple’s projects include leather fixtures for Klein Jan, a restaurant in the Kalahari Desert conceived by South Africa’s first Michelin-star chef, Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen. They also recently helped Porky Hefer with his pod-like nest seating.
‘When I collaborate with people, be it a photographer or somebody who is helping with making a video, I usually have long periods of conversation with them,’ says Mntambo. One such recent example is her costumed role as the ‘snake lady’ in a 2019 music video promoting the single ‘Harare’ by Johannesburg psych-rock band Blk Jks. Mntambo also contributed cover art to the band’s 2021 album Abantu/Before Humans.
While her relationship with Leather Walls is new, it emerged out of a long-term conversation with Southern Guild owners Trevyn and Julian McGowan. ‘We spoke about working together for five or more years, but it just never happened,’ says Mntambo. ‘We couldn’t really figure out how to conceptualise it. And then, when the pandemic hit, there was time to really pause and think about things. It gave me the time to wrap my head around what the objects could be.’
The distinctive forms Mntambo conceived draw on various strands in her celebrated artistic practice. The rocking stool, for instance, was inspired by a trip to Benin, where the artist was researching the women soldiers of Dahomey (a pre-colonial kingdom), when she encountered the elaborately costumed voodoo nightwatchmen known as Zangbeto. Among the pieces in Mntambo’s simultaneous exhibition ‘Agoodjie’, currently on view at Cape Town art gallery Everard Read (until 28 February 2022), is a photo of her kneeling between two Zangbeto figures.
Mntambo does not distinguish between her artistic and design practices. Take her swivelling throne. It is a mash-up of Arne Jacobsen’s iconic ‘Egg’ chair and a new zebra-skin installation titled The Sages included in her exhibition ‘Agoodjie’. There is a healthy correspondence between the ideas and forms in Mntambo’s two Cape Town exhibitions. Both feature her paintings.
The ‘Transcending Instinct’ exhibition at Southern Guild is bookended by two oval paintings, measuring 2.7m in height. Mntambo describes them as ‘large mirrors into blackness’. She says her capacity to effortlessly shift between functional objects and metaphorical statement is an attribute shared by all artists: adaptability.
‘We’re very adaptable,’ she insists, ‘but how we’ve understood the market and how the art world functions doesn’t seem to be adaptable in the same way. It feels as though there is still a separation between what art and design can or can’t be.’ Her two concurrent exhibitions might seem to reinforce the disciplinary boundary, but they also hint at a possible reconciliation.
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Sean O’Toole is writer, editor and curator based in Cape Town. He has published two books, most recently a 2021 monograph on the expressionist painter Irma Stern, as well as edited three volumes of cultural essays, including 'The Journey: New Positions on African Photography', which received a New York Times critics’ pick for Best Art Books 2021. His exhibition projects include 'Photo book! Photo-book! Photobook!' at A4 Arts Foundation, Cape Town.
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