Nandipha Mntambo uses her body as an arena on which and through which she constantly disrupts conventions and breaks traditional prohibitions. The video work Ukugenisa (2008) was filmed in Maputo, Mozambique’s capital city, where local black people had been made to fight each other for the entertainment of the Portuguese colonialists. Mntambo appears as a bullfighter, a role reserved in the past for men only, but when she turns around one realizes she is wearing a cowhide, thus simultaneously taking on the role of the animal. These dualities—human–animal, woman–bull, fighter–victim—characterize the hybrid presence she has in most of her works, in the various media she uses: video, photography and sculpture. Another feature of Mntambo’s works is their title in Zulu, a tactic which, from the outset, confronts the viewers with their foreignness, with being outsiders. In Zulu, Ukugenisa means “import” or “insertion”—and when this word hovers above the bullfighting arena it motivates first the need for translation and then the inclination to interpret: the multiplicity of meanings of importing products, customs, cultures and humans, which joins up with the aggression linked with their insertion, which together almost become the definition of colonialism.
The intensive preoccupation with cows and bulls is linked with the central place of the animal in Nguni culture, prevalent in South Africa and in other African cultures. However, the role of processing the skin, drying and cleaning it, is considered exclusively masculine and out of bounds for women. Thus, in the context of local culture, each of Mntambo’s activities shatters a taboo when she deals with the cowhide, certainly when she wears it, or molds it with polyester and exhibits it as a sculpture. One of Mntambo’s famous works is a grotesque photograph of her face bearing horns and fur, titled Europa (2008), the name of the mythological figure abducted by Zeus in the guise of a bull. In presenting the black woman’s body as animalistic, simultaneously attractive and repulsive, Mntambo enhances ad absurdum the stereotypic identification of Africa with nature, one pole in the binary of nature and culture. Western views reserve the pole of culture for western culture, and Mntambo’s defiant use of her body enables her to disrupt not only western conventions but also African ones. The figure emerging from her art is indeed one that shifts between worlds, operating mainly in a space of hybridity. Duality is present in all the representations she creates: she is a woman and an animal, a hunter and a hunted, she is the image-creating artist and at the same time the photographed representation itself.