Practice of Interest
Separating the personal from the public
with Nandipha Mntambo
Through a multidisciplinary practice, Nandipha Mntambo investigates the human condition and its parallels to nature. Working in sculpture, photography, video and mixed media works, Mntambo illustrates humanity’s coming to terms with being both the perpetrator and the victim. Almost two decades in, the practices has developed, expanded, relinquished and rebranded. In this week’s Of Interest, we sit and reflect with Mntambo.
In her own words, Nandipha Mntambo is currently “in the process of analysing certain ideas and rethinking how I want to make things about the thoughts I have. So it’s really just a recalibration.” Catching up with her over a pot of tea on a cloudy Johannesburg morning, FNB Art Joburg received some insight into subjects spanning the themes she finds herself examining and the process of protecting the personal that becomes public when working in a commercial market.
Considering where it started, how would you describe the place that you are in with your practice?
You know, I think that I’m probably in an evolutionary kind of space. I was with Stevenson for many years. They really helped with incubating me, my practice and how things developed. Right now I’m negotiating a different relationship with Everard Read because I’ve been working for so long. I have established my own visual language and I’ve also built a studio at home that dictates my way of working. There’s a movement, not necessarily away from but to the side of where and how I was practicing and working.
There’s a representation of you present in the characters you present in your work. After all this time would you say they’re reflections of the self? If not, what has informed this continued use of your body and how does it affect or inform your process?
I’ve separated myself from my work for a long time now. I’ve decided to be in a commercial space and so I think being too personal didn’t work. I’m already personal when I’m making the work because I have personal and private feelings that I express. But the expression of them and how I then need to let it go is the only way that I think I am able to have my work displayed and shown. Once I decided to be in a commercial space, or a space where there is room for discussion, judgment or perception, I had to separate myself from the object because that’s what it is. It wasn’t always like this. When I was younger and starting out, there was a lot of taking things personally and being affected by feedback. Over time I’ve learned to separate the personal from the public. All the works are personal because of why and how I make them. But I relinquish it when the work becomes public.
Still on the figures and characters you have portrayed, would you say there is a deliberate thread running through your decision to offer us Ophelia, the Minotaur, bullfighter and the Agoodjie as Black women?
Well, they speak to each other: deliberately and not so deliberately. In all the characters there’s a vulnerability in some respects and an aggression in others. Ophelia had an unrequited love that led her to becoming her own aggressor that ultimately leads her to die by drowning. The minotaur was born, not because he wanted to be born. He was in a situation where he was half man, half bull, so a beast in the eyes of those he encountered. Then he was trapped in this maze where on some level I’m sure there was a fear of some kind but existing with the need to be aggressive in order to eat and survive. Then there’s the bullfighter. A bullfighter chooses to be in this very complex and compromising situation where one could very easily be killed but you have to be aggressive in order to make it through the situation. It’s not self destructive but it’s a situation where pain is inflicted deliberately. With the Agoodje: they are these women who were both perpetrators of violence but also receivers of a lot of it.
Okay, so all these characters speak to each other in their duality of being both perpetrators and victims of violence. Is there a reason why you’ve kept this thematic thread running through your practice?
I think it’s the human condition. We perpetrate violence. Whether it be in a very minimal way to each other, to animals, to the universe. We’re also on the receiving end of a lot of violence and hurt as well. That’s why they take on different mediums. I think that a painting answers a different question to what a sculpture does. A lithograph has a different way of being engaged compared to a linocut. Being in a space where I move from performance to photography to sculpture allows me to answer different layers of the same themes. It also allows me to pose different questions as well.