Nandipha Mntambo was the only black person who graduated from her art school in South Africa with the class of 2007. “When I was growing up, it was Picasso who was the representation of the artist. No black African artist was presented to me,” Mntambo recalls. And there is even less representation of black women among the art world in Africa, though Mntambo is quick to point out that beyond gender disparity, art in Africa, and especially in South Africa, is more a matter of racial disparity.
“The reality for me is much more a black-white issue rather than a male-female question,” Mntambo says, commenting on the state of art in South Africa, especially in light of the opening of the contemporary African Art in Cape Town last month, first museum of its kind. The Zeitz Mocca of Contemporary Art Africa Museum did not open without controversy. But artists like Mntambo not only have welcomed the museum, but they see it as a turning point in the narratives of African contemporary art.
“As black and female artists, right now we are unfortunately in a situation where the only people who are collecting our art are from outside the continent. People who are in the position to collect art happen to be white. A lot of the clients for African art have been European. Our work has been exported from the beginning. But ultimately you want your countrymen to buy your work and our children to come to the museum and see African artists.”
Mntambo sees the new museum as a turning point in the story of contemporary African art, and brushes off the criticism some have voiced about the museum having been financed and opened by European businessman Jochen Zeitz. “For me, this is ultimately about supporting art and how to move forward to create other spaces that can create opportunity and expirations,” she said.
Mntambo is no stranger to controversy. The daughter of a methodist bishop, Mntambo grew up as the only black kid in an all white Jewish school in apartheid South Africa. Her experience of race, beauty and power went beyond the politics of apartheid. At home, her family experienced a very specific hate crime for being the only black family living in a white middle class neighborhood. Stones were constantly thrown at their windows, dogs stabbed and killed and daily harassments that limited the family’s mobility in the streets. “People hated the fact that a black family were living in the neighborhood,” Mntambo explains. But the family of the black methodist Bishop did not give in to the pressure.
Her isolation from her classmates in the liberal school was not only related to racial discrimination but also to the varied perceptions of beauty. In her case, she couldn’t’ engage with her classmates whose definition of beauty was based on their white skin, body hair, and straight head hair. The discussions her liberal white girlfriends had did not resonate with Mntambo, creating another level of isolation beyond race or religion.
“Being the only black child, I had to grow a thick skin as the way to do anything I wanted to pursue and never allow the thought of not being able to do something,” she recalled. “Many of the girls growing up had body hair and I didn’t. I could never be a part of all their discussion of waxing and shaving.”
Now Mntambo uses her body image and cowhide to explore the meaning of beauty in a non-binary way. “Because of how colonization and globalization has worked, our understanding of beauty has become a very specific understanding,” Mntambo explains. By using cowhide, Mntambo is trying to explore beauty through the cow, a medium all of humanity connects with in one way or another. Her goal is to embark on the “bigger conversation in how we not only understand the animal and the idea of beauty but also opens up to the bigger conversation about animal-human, man-woman, fighting-protecting. Is the bull fighting or protecting? How do you navigate between the pressure and your passion? I enjoy asking questions and getting people to look different and question what they thought they knew.”
Some Mntambo questions relate to South Africa’s struggle these days regarding the meaning of wealth, life, and upward mobility. “Everyone wants to be wealthy, so people’s career choices are rarely in the arts,” Mntambo notes. She is quick to point at the education problem as being central the country’s challenge. “It starts at such a difficult level because very few people want to become teachers because [teaching] does not have a good pay. Kids who are coming to public school education are getting the lower quality teachers where art is not something you are very exposed to. Then you go to high school and university where economic reality is leading many decisions in life. A job that is paying fast and good is better than the job that may be what your heart desires but a long-term struggle.”
Mntambo acknowledges the privilege she had growing in a family that supported her pursuit of art. Now, with her work exhibited in the new Zeitz Mocca of Contemporary Art Africa, Mntambo is clear about the reality of art in South Africa. “Contemporary art has always been a white profession.”
“This is the conversation we are not having,” she adds. “White people are in a better social and economic position is generally better in the world than black people. They have better education and better access to opportunities. White people feel they can do anything they can do and succeed at it. While for a black people it is a different situation … maybe in a generation or two to come, our kids will see point.”
And maybe the opening of this historical museum can help expedite this process. For now, Desmond Tutu danced at its opening and Mntambo, one of the few black female artists in South Africa, and others are seeing it as a new beacon of hope for black African artists.
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.
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