© Nandipha Mntambo

The annual “National Arts Festival” is happening at the moment in Grahamstown, a small university town north-east of Port Elizabeth (ZA). It is the biggest and probably the most important art fair on the African continent, but other than at its European equivalents you won’t find fancy gallerists, glossy catalogues or VIP areas here.

How it basically works is that all public space available in town is used as a gallery, stage or auditorium to display arts of all kind. The range of drama, dance, theatre, comedy, opera, music, visual art exhibitions, film, lectures, craft fairs and workshops is simply overwhelming and you are most likely to get lost, if you don’t plan well ahead of what you want to see. With ridiculous amounts of cheaply made posters and flyers, everyone is trying to get you into their shows and exhibitions and the whole town ends up drowning in rubbish, both literally and arts wise, or so it seems at first glance.

Once you get behind the “open day at your local school” – flair (namely because most of the shows are held on the premises of Rhodes University) though, you can find some incredibly talented artists, like Nandipha Mntambo.

Born in Swaziland, she is now based in Cape Town and renown for her award wining sculptures, photographs and videos, which have already been exhibited in Sydney, Dakar, Oslo, Barcelona and Berlin.

At the festival Mntambo’s sculptures mysteriously hover above the ground like dancing ghosts in ancient dresses. They are cast from her own body and only on the second look you notice the unusual material, they are made of: “I have used cowhide as a means to subvert expected associations with corporeal presence, femininity, sexuality and vulnerability.” the artist explains.

She also exhibits stitched “drawings” out of cow hair and a video titled Paso Doble, showing a dance inspired by bullfights, where the male dancer (who is actually a woman in this case) embodies the matador and the female alternately his red cloth or the bull itself.

Putting that together leads to the theme of this exhibition “the most beautiful and skillful section of a bullfight – a dance with death, where the matador must prove his courage and artistry”.

Nandipha Mntambo has also won the festival’s prestigious “Standard Bank Young Artist Award” for visual art this year, as has William Kentridge at the start of his career, so she is definitely someone to look out for.

In case you happen to be in South Africa, the event is still on until the 10th of July. More information to the artist and the festival is provided here: http://www.stevenson.info/exhibitions/mntambo/index2011_sbya.html


by Victor Bergmann