The series of textured lithographs presenting abstract mounds that you encounter at the entrance to the Stevenson Gallery hint at this shift, though they only “make sense” once you have perused the second room of the gallery where one of her signature cowhide sculptures dominates. But first, it’s a new two-channel video work dubbed Marie Sara (2014) displayed on adjacent walls, pinning you between the two screens that demand your attention. The film(s) is centred on an interview with the titular subject, a female bullfighter.
It’s not an unexpected topic, but Mntambo’s approach is somewhat different here; she is no longer consumed with the fantasy of a bullfight, or assuming the role of a matador, but documenting a real-life one, though we encounter her in a calm domestic setting. This real scenario prompts a hunger to capture the details; Mntambo zooms in on her subject and the architectural details of a bullfighting venue. It is hard to believe this softly spoken blonde subject, seen stroking a cat on her lap, is a bullfighter, would do harm to an animal. Yet as she talks about her family background and we see elaborate elements of the building where a bullfight takes place it seems clear that the tradition is removed from reality; it plays out in a theatre of sorts where she gets to play someone else, though there are real consequences for doing so.
There are omissions in the English translations at the bottom of the screen and the nature of the close-ups is such that the interview itself operates as another form of theatre that seduces us with its sensual visual qualities and the ambiguous figure who explains an occupation and act that is not represented. This bloody moment of violence is always denied in Mntambo’s work, as is the tradition in Portugal where the bull is either killed or treated away from the spectators view. This off-screen death allows the animal a level of immortality - a theme that runs throughout this show.
This work encapsulates that murky territory that Mntambo has always mined; the place between the female/male, life/death, human/animal, but what is significant is that Mntambo has employed the documentary mode to do so, which interestingly allows for more ambiguity than her staged depictions. It is as if Mntambo is seeking out new ways to portray ambiguity, extending her vocabulary, which the oil paintings and lithographs achieve more overtly.
The cowhide sculpture, Destinies Entwined, doesn’t imply absent human forms, as has been the case with previous works in this material, which have been moulded on a person. They appear like a cover, a cape perhaps or the red cloth that is used to taunt the bull in a ring. They could also stand in for a macabre renaction of bulls at the height of their life, such as a taxidermied object. The title refers to a dramatic moment that binds the two entities, hinted at in these mirrored cowhide forms. This moment of contact may or may not refer to a bullfight; its indeterminate status is what allows it to exist as an abstract form relating to abstract ideas around life/death, animal/human or the surface (the skin) and the absent interior being or object.
|Hinterlands of Devotion II|
This sense of ambiguity is fully teased out in a series of striking “hairy paintings” surrounding the cowhide sculpture. Hair is woven into the canvases of these drip oil paintings, imparting not only texture but disrupting the flat surface and introducing “the animal” into these abstract works.
The hair could be human but it speaks of the animal; in Mntambo’s work hair has presented the meeting place between the human and the animal. The hair also implies a living being, imparting a sense that the object is ‘alive’ and real, though ironically detached from a living being hair becomes a grotesque and haunting reminder of absence/death. These paintings, rendered in a dark palette, highlight this element of revulsion that her work has always, on purpose, induced as well as the sense of curiosity too; it’s the hair that turns these paintings into macabre “objects” that are both alive and dead. This generates a different kind of attachment to a painting and evokes all the baggage this medium has with regards to reality and immortality. In other words this theme is given a different spin via painting.
Significantly, the abstract painterly vocabulary denies the human/animal reference. This is not unexpected; so many artists, like Nicholas Hlobo, who represented human forms in sculptural works and have been preoccupied with creating ambiguity around them, have turned to abstraction. It makes sense; abstraction is perhaps the end point of a continuum dedicated to ambiguity. This transition articulates this shift in contemporary South African art from identity-based work to abstraction, and a move from a subversion of documentary photography to painting.
Between the documentary film Marie Sara, the “hairy” oil paintings and the lithographs, which are even more ambiguous than the paintings and meditate on this “mound” which the cowhide sculpture evokes, this show sees Mntambo’s practice sitting on the cusp of this transition in contemporary art in South Africa.
However, in its curious mix between an overstated identity theme and an apolitical abstract body of work that is loosened from specifics, it evinces how interconnected or dependent these two streams of expression are on each other. In this show they plot Mntambo’s evolution as an artist and the trajectory of a preoccupation/idea and its core undercurrents.
This is most obvious when you juxtapose the documentary film with the lithographs, which could be read as the poetic expressions of the unstable conditions present in the film. The beauty the film presents is overwritten by the abhorrent actions it conceals, the quiet controlled female stereotype assumes a male occupation. Our desire to understand and make sense of the subject while also allowing ourselves to get carried away by it can only be fully realised via the lighographs. They crystallise this experience without offering any logic. The trick and risk with representing a confluence of contradictory conditions via abstraction is that the contradictory forces, shall we call it, cannot be sustained enough for us to appreciate their collapse. In other words, fully realising ambiguity can quickly devolve into works that say nothing.- first published in The Sunday Independent, April 20, 2014
Transcience is showing at the Stevenson Gallery in Joburg until May 16.