Meschac Gaba and Nandipha Mntambo’s concurrent solo exhibitions, Tresses and Ingabisa, provide useful foils to each other. Both exhibitions engage with what ostensibly seems to be clothing or adornment, but in a complicated manner, where what is placed on the body speaks of the interface of self with history, culture and space. Because of this confluence, I find the choice to show these artists together a particularly good one, as these bodies of work broadens and deepens the experience of both offerings.
Meschac Gaba and Nandipha Mntambo’s concurrent solo exhibitions, Tresses and Ingabisa, provide useful foils to each other. Both exhibitions engage with what ostensibly seems to be clothing or adornment, but in a complicated manner, where what is placed on the body speaks of the interface of self with history, culture and space. Because of this confluence, I find the choice to show these artists together a particularly good one, as these bodies of work broadens and deepens the experience of both offerings.Gaba’s colourful, playful hats or hair-dos (called ‘wig buildings’ in the press release), constructed from braided artificial hair, are idiosyncratically formed into shapes resembling a number of buildings from Cape Town, Pretoria and Johannesburg. Their shapes will be familiar to anyone who has moved through these cities, as many of them are icons – but with a twist. For instance, the Reserve Bank building in Pretoria, a dark tower that seems to suck the light from the dusty skies of the Northern capital city, is by Gaba transformed into a playful orange and black sculpture, almost cheekily placed on the smooth, pale head of a mannequin bust. Similarly, the looming tan coloured block of the Unisa building that greets one upon entry into Pretoria, here becomes a Technicolor tower of Babel, faltering under the strain of the bits of block added onto the main structure.These works function primarily on the power of transformation. That is, by making them wearable objects, carried on the head, Gaba calls to mind the familiar image of African women carrying their wares in this manner. But Gaba uses this image to turn things, as it were, on their heads. This is apparent from the video documentation (projected onto the wall of the gallery) of Gaba’s intervention in Paris and London. Interestingly, the mannequins’ gazes seem transfixed on this projection. In the video, models parade through the streets of these European fashion Meccas with their ‘wig buildings’, this time reminiscent of buildings from these two cities.Essentially, Gaba is invading the so-called ‘centre’ with an almost stereotypical image of women carrying large loads on their heads, where an important difference is, of course, that it is a reinterpretation of the ‘centre’ that is on display. Coupled with the images of money (large-scale prints of banknotes constructed by the artist) these ‘wig buildings’ comment on locales of power: notions of trade, movement of people, and global power relations are all woven into the objects. Through the performance, this significance is amplified. It is in their function as wearable objects that these sculptures come into their own, as it grants a special agency to the wearer.Similarly, Nandipha Mntambo’s sculptures are powerful because of their direct invocation of the body, and the agency of the artist. In her artist’s statement, she posits that through making use of her own body, as well as that of her mother’s, she is controlling how she is represented – a vital point in contemporary art discourse. The choice of cow-hide as medium, is a loaded one. As with Gaba’s work, there is an invocation of the ‘expected’. However, in this body of work the expected is also transformed. Mntambo’s sculptures call to mind two things at once. One is immediately made aware of the closeness of these objects to the shape of bodies – in this sense they are highly intimate. Yet, at the same time, they become reminiscent of cocktail dresses (especially in Indlovukati), or even a wedding dress Lelive Lami). There is a grace and poise, an almost Baroque sense of dynamic movement in these pieces. To my mind, Mntambo’s sculptures bring into play a new space, somewhere between the skin and the clothes – not completely interior, but also not simply received from outside.That this space, this interface, manifests as remodelled cow hide, suggests that this interface, while played out on the body, is metaphorically extended to refer to the arena of culture as well. In both Gaba’s and Mntambo’s exhibitions, the performative, or embodied nature of the works foreground the agency of the artist, or individual. The individual then, is then not so much a receptacle of a culture, history or place, but a dynamic subjectivity in conversation with the world, and an agent in its change.