Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Power Play: Nandipha Mntambo

In Michiel Heyns’s Invisible Furies he introduces a Pablo Picasso painting, Figures At The Seaside, as a touchstone for the complex dynamic between lovers. The modernist work shows atomised body parts splayed and entangled as the two identities become intermingled. Observing the artwork, a character in Heyns’s novel proposes it expresses the submission of the female, a desire for defeat, and the male compulsion to conquer.

In Nandipha Mntambo’s videowork Paso Doble we are presented with a similar motif, though in this case the male and female characters, denoted via their dress, are locked in this fiery Spanish dance. The camera is mostly trained on their lower bodies as they whip around each other as she resists being tamed by the male character, whose movements seem more certain, less lively. Is she the victim, is he the conqueror and is the dance just a game where the outcome has already been determined?

It is in the context of the paso doble or any classic male-female duet that the dynamic between the genders seems set. The woman is the beautiful, eye-catching object that flits around the stage, while the male figure is a sombre presence who gives a guiding hand to her flights of fancy, her pretence at escape. In this way gender dynamics are embedded in dance, ingrained in the movements of the body in such a way that to be male or female is written into each muscle.

Mntambo tries to unwrite these rules in Paso Doble by conflating the roles. She does this in two ways; the shadows of the two characters which occupy the foreground appear to be fused, forming this peculiar hybrid creature that is constantly changing its appearance as the dancers move across the floor together. Because they are always joined, their limbs become indistinguishable in the shadow. In this way this dark doppelganger becomes the underlying and inescapable truth that they cannot outrun.