One of the most interesting bodies of work exhibited during February in Cape Town was the solo exhibition by
Nandipha Mntambo titled, Agoodjie. The title translates into dual meanings: a ‘back bone’ and to ‘one who comes from behind.’ This exhibition ran parallel with the exhibition of functional sculptures by her titled, Transcending Instinct, at Guild Gallery as well as the much-anticipated Cape Town Art Fair where one of her monumental sculptures took centre stage at the Everard Read Gallery exhibition.
Nandipha has been known for her unique universal representation of the human figure combined with very specificcultural references pointing to her as a powerful African woman through her subtle use of ca
ttle hide, bronze, oil paint andphotography. She has been known to push away from the African stereotypes often apposed on artists from this continent,and focused on representing themes of metamorphoses, memory, life, and death.
We attended the walk-about with the artist organized for the Cape Town Art Fair.
This is what Mntambo said:
“This show already started to develop in my mind 11 years ago. I was gifted a book by a friend titled, The Amazons of black Sparta, and it’s one of the books that I picked up and put down and picked up and put down over the last decade. At the same time, I was developing other bodies of work focusing on sculpture and using cattle hide. I created this army of myself11 years ago where I used myself as a sort of mould/subject/object. At the time I didn’t realize that this army of women was connected to this book and finally led to this exhibition.
She also connected this humped shape to Zangbeto, the spiritual incarnation of the female and male army that was once tasked with protecting Dahomey. In the Benin Republic this mythical being is represented by performers wearing humped raffia costumes as seen in one of the photographic artworks. She explained that: “within Voodoo culture this isa spirit that comes out at night… and how they understand this being as a protector but also with wrath, so if you are a child and you are out late at night when Zangbeto comes out you might die. If you are a pregnant woman and you see Zangbeto you might have a miscarriage or never be able to have children. There’s this interesting sort of myth around how Zangbeto protects the village but can also harm you.”
I started working on the bronze sculptures before even knowing that I was going to be able to go to the Benin Republic. I needed to create the costumes, but theses weren’t really recorded accurately in any way. I needed to create this persona, which was me as human in this mythical place, but that’s also very real. This led me to work with a fashion designer to create the costumes and using 3D technology to create the sculptures. We made a 3D scan of me in this costume, and then scaled it up and created the wax sculptures from which the bronzes were casted. The wax sculptures had to be reworked so that my artistic hand still comes into the process and for the work to keep its integrity even though technology has helped in some way.
It has been an interesting process of understanding the making of objects, how technology can help you, and how at the same time we need to rely on the real space – what did the real clothes look like? What’s your vision as an artist of what the costume should look like? And then eventually being able to go to the Benin Republic and getting chastised by the Ministry of Heritage that somehow got interested in a project by a South African artist, who doesn’t have a connection to the Benin Republic, interested in the space that’s now a UNESCO world heritage site.”
Mntambo explained the complicated process that was necessary to be able to visit and photograph her performance atthe palace in the Benin Republic as well as the difficulties in gaining access to the museum on site to view and study theartefacts left by the Dahomey kingdom. Through the help of the South African ambassador in the Benin Republic thiswas made possible. She also mentioned that there is still a lot of secrecy around the Agoodjie women that protected thekings of Dahomey inspired by the story of queen Hangbe that was crowned both king and queen. The level of secrecy
around these powerful women and how the custodians of this history choose not to share certain parts of theinformation were both interesting and stressful for Mntambo. She commented that: “we need an opening up of history,we need a greater and better understanding of how African people tell our own stories, but at the same time, there’s aclose-fisted way of how it is kept.”
On the humped shape often seen in Mntambo’s work she remarked: “at first, I thought it was about the fact that your shoulder has a hump, your ear has a protrusion your finger and so on, so the body itself is full of these humps. Initially I thought that it was about the simplification of the human form, but when I started conceptualising the work for the exhibition and I realised that there was something about the space of hiding in plain sight that I was always thinking about… there was something interesting around the Zebra… the fact that they each have their own individual pattern or fingerprint, but when you look at them as a herd or as a whole, you can’t tell Mary from Martha from John. So that interesting space of how the Agoodjie as women could hide in plain sight connected somehow.”