Nandipha Mntambo turns Afropunk ideas into functional seating
A new exhibition by Nandipha Mntambo showcases the artist’s first foray into furniture, on view at the Southern Guild in Cape Town until 8 April 2022
South African artist Nandipha Mntambo’s first foray into functional sculpture, now on display at Cape Town’s Southern Guild Design Gallery (until 8 April 2022), features four extraordinary Afropunk interpretations of classic seating. Next to a shaggy stool inspired by the traditional raffia costumes worn by West African village guardians, Mntambo created a throne-like chair in zebra skin and a chaise longue in eucalyptus wood with 60 hand rolled leather tentacles.
Nandipha Mntambo’s furniture designs
Installation view of ‘Transcending Instinct’ at the Southern Guild
The largest of the four seats is a spacious cocoon loveseat. Its leather interior is a soft gold, the result of a metallic tanning process, while the exterior is scalloped with over 300 chocolate-colored embellishments. The folded pieces of leather vaguely resemble the colored branches of irises, but are actually approximations of cow’s ears.
Mntambo, whose Johannesburg home is decorated with mid-century Scandinavian furniture, previously used real cow ears in a coat worn in a photographic self-portrait, taken more than a decade ago. Despite the artist’s frequent use of cowhide in her much-admired sculptures, installations, and film and photographic series, the treated leather that returns to her seats was a new material for her.
“Treated leather isn’t my thing,” says Mntambo, whose skin sculptures give the illusion of wrinkled softness despite their firmness and inflexibility. “Translating ears that in my studio would be rock hard into something softer, more tactile and functional was an interesting challenge.”
Development of a leather furniture collection
Liz and Roger James of Cape Town’s Leather Walls studio helped Mntambo turn his Afropunk ideas into functional seating. The couple’s projects include leather accessories for Klein Jan, a restaurant in the Kalahari Desert designed by South Africa’s first Michelin-starred chef, Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen. They also recently helped Porky Hefer with his pod-like nest seats.
“When I’m collaborating with people, whether it’s a photographer or someone helping make a video, I usually have long periods of conversation with them,” says Mntambo. One such recent example is her costumed role as the “lady snake” in a 2019 music video promoting the single “Harare” by Johannesburg psych rock band Blk Jks. Mntambo also contributed the cover art for the band’s 2021 album Abantu / Before humans.
‘Love Quest’ Daybed
Although her relationship with Leather Walls is new, it grew out of a long conversation with Southern Guild owners Trevyn and Julian McGowan. “We talked about working together for five years or more, but that never happened,” Mntambo says. “We couldn’t really figure out how to conceptualize it. And then when the pandemic hit, there was time to really pause and think about things. It gave me time to figure out what the objects might be.
The distinctive forms designed by Mntambo draw on various streams of his famous artistic practice. The rocking stool, for example, was inspired by a trip to Benin, where the artist was researching female soldiers in Dahomey (a pre-colonial kingdom), when she encountered the elaborately costumed voodoo night watchmen known as Zangbeto’s name. Among the pieces in Mntambo’s concurrent exhibition “Agoodjie,” currently on view at Cape Town’s Everard Read Art Gallery (until February 28, 2022), is a photo of her kneeling between two Zangbeto figures.
Mntambo does not distinguish between his artistic and design practices. Take his swivel throne. It’s a mix of Arne Jacobsen’s iconic “Egg” chair and a new zebra skin installation titled The wise included in his exhibition ‘Agoodjie’. There is a healthy correspondence between ideas and forms in the two exhibitions of Mntambo in Cape Town. Both present his paintings.
Eclipse IIto the left and Eclipse Ilaw
The “Transcending Instinct” exhibit at Southern Guild is complemented by two oval paintings measuring 2.7m in height. Mntambo describes them as “big mirrors in the dark”. She says her ability to switch effortlessly between functional objects and metaphorical statement is an attribute shared by all artists: adaptability.
“We are very adaptable, she insists, but the way we understood the market and the functioning of the art world does not seem to be adaptable in the same way. It’s like there’s still a separation between what art and design can or can’t be. His two simultaneous exhibitions may seem to reinforce the disciplinary boundary, but they also suggest a possible reconciliation. §
Installation view of ‘Agoodjie’ at Everard Read, with a photo of the artist kneeling between two Zangbeto figures. Image courtesy of Michael Hall