Nandipha Mntambo, one of South Africa’s most compelling and innovative contemporary artists, has often reflected in her work on the power of metamorphosis – using mythological chimera figures combining beasts and humans for much of her photographic and sculptural work. She returns to the theme in her new show at Everard Read in Johannesburg, titled Chimera, that this time comprises solely of paintings.
The title refers to any mythical or fictional creature with parts taken from various animals, or to describe anything composed of disparate parts and perceived as wildly imaginative, implausible, or dazzling. In much of Mntambo’s previous work, especially her sculpture and performance photographs, this imagination was realised through her own body. Now she has “returned” to painting, in keeping with her “passion for a multidisciplinary artistic practice”, with a focused exhibition of abstract works.
Speaking about her new paintings, Mntambo said: “My current focus on painting explores form, material and illusion, and has been a process of creating immersive large scale works with the hope of drawing the viewer into the world of my creative process. I’m playing with the oppositions of desire and repulsion, invitation and warning, that come with the territory of the original chimeras of mythology.”
The series of paintings are marked by a dark, undulating field that anchors the colour and texture above it, a bifurcation which acts out the chimerical concept, but also alludes, as Mntambo puts it, to “the excitement of a possible future, while being enveloped in the space of the unseen, of the complexities inherent in relationships and the interdependent nature of good and bad, light and shadow.”
Chimera marks the latest turn in a fascinating career of one of the country’s most successful black female artists. Mntambo recently carried the flag for a reflection on and reappraisal of African history. A predominantly sculptural body of work told a different and brilliantly compelling story of the 19th century warrior women of Dahomey (now Benin), called the Agoodjie, than the one colonial history would have us believe. A selection from this show will travel to Benin under the auspices of the South African ambassador to Benin, Ruby Marks.
A highlight of the Agoodjie show was the almost 3m high sculptures of the warrior women, cast in the likeness of Mntambo herself, and moulded using 3D printing technology. The artist comments, “I think that just like in the rest of the world the changes that have happened in the South African art world and market have been centred around what artworks or materials can be. My shift to more technological ways of working and interfacing with objects have given rise to shifts in how we are all making and consuming art.”
Mntambo’s career has been marked by her willingness to experiment both conceptually and technically. “I’ve been very lucky to have worked with galleries that are very open to the world of experimentation,” she says. “The work I have made, even in this current painting show, has always been about my explorations of concepts and ideas. I have sometimes had challenges of how the practical elements of some of my more complex ideas can be realised but have never had to change an idea in order to make it more palatable to the art market. Creative freedom is what makes the career of any artist dynamic – if that is stifled it will definitely become apparent at some point.”