An art exhibition is a confluence of creative minds and the perfect opportunity to understand the current thinking of a country’s intelligentsia.

Lebohang Kganye and Nandipha Mntambo are two of 13 female artists – from Ethiopia to Egypt to Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa – we meet showcasing their work, at the historic Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg on May 10, for the exhibition, Being her(e): Meditations on African Femininities, examining what it means to be “a female body in contemporary Africa”.

Searching for mother

Lebohang Kganye

Lebohang Kganye (Photo supplied)

“I am excited to be part of the exhibition, because it is not a show overseas, about Africa, but it is an exhibition in a historical space in Africa. I have no reservations about the future of women in arts across Africa, and this exhibition emphasizes that,” says South African photographer Kganye.

Her first piece of art, B(l)ack to Fairy Tales, in 2011, explored her memories of a fairy tale world by Walt Disney.

“I identified with fairy tale characters – the white skin, long hair, blue eyes, perfect figure… My black skin and location became an increasing disjuncture with the fantasies I believed in. Hence, I paint myself excessively black for B(l)ack to Fairy Tales”.

For her collection, Kganye uses photographs from her 2013 series, Ke Lefa Laka, dedicated to her mother.

“Her death sparked the need to trace my ancestral roots. I initially began navigating my history through geographic mapping, attempting to trace where my family originated and how we ended up in these different spaces that we all now call home. I visited the different locations where my family lived in South Africa and found old family photo albums.

“I began looking for pieces of my mother in the house. I found many photos and clothes which had always been there but which I had ignored over the years. There she was smiling and posing in these clothes. My re-connection with her became a visual manipulation of ‘her-our’ histories. I began inserting myself into her pictorial narrative by emulating these snaps.

“I would dress in the exact clothes that she was wearing in these 20-year-old photographs and mimic the same poses. This was my way of marrying the two memories; mine and hers. I later developed digital photomontages where I juxtaposed old photographs of my mother retrieved from the family archives with photographs of a ‘present version of her’ – she is me, I am her, and there remains in this commonality so much difference, and so much distance in space and time,” says Kganye.

In 2011, she completed an Advanced Photography course at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg, where she displays her self-portraits. She is now busy with a new collection of photographs, Reconstruction Of A Family.

The Cowhide Chick

Nandipha Mntambo

Nandipha Mntambo (Photo supplied)

It’s a gloomy day in Johannesburg when we meet with South African sculptor, photographer and videographer Nandipha Mntambo at her apartment-cum-studio in New Doornfontein but around her are bursts of color. Mntambo is surrounded by her paintings and sculptures. Art has always been in her blood.

Mntambo was born in Swaziland and grew up in South Africa. She graduated with a master’s degree in Fine Art from the University of Cape Town (UCT), in 2007. Her father was a bishop, so it was a nomadic childhood.

“We moved around the country because of my father’s job and at that time it was still under apartheid because of the neighborhood that we lived in there were certain schools that didn’t accept me so I ended up studying at a Jewish school, then a Catholic and a Methodist school, the different cultures and religion had an influence on how I deal with things,” she says.

Mntambo, 35, wanted to study forensics pathology but couldn’t deal with dead bodies.

“I wanted to be a scientist; the Stellenbosch University had a good department and I was even job-shadowing but then I thought seeing dead people every day wouldn’t necessarily be the best thing for me.

“Luckily, I had a portfolio from high school, I sent it to UCT and then they accepted me into their art program. At the time, I didn’t imagine I would be a full-time practising artist. I was just happy to create work and learn more about art history,” says Mntambo.

In her work, Mntambo focuses on the human body and the organic nature of identity, using natural materials and experimenting with sculptures moulded from cowhide. For this, she is known as the ‘cowhide chick’.

She uses her own body as the mould for these sculptures and does not intend to make statements about femininity.

“One of the challenges I’ve had was to have a language that would help me explain to somebody that because I am a black female within a particular context, the issues of lobola, women, cows and culture are there but it’s not what my work is about,” she says.

One of Mntambo’s favorite materials is the skin of the cow. Her art works explore the similarities and differences between animals and humans; men and women, and attraction and repulsion.

“I was really interested in mythology when I first started and the fact that throughout many civilizations there are stories of animals and humans and how they inter-relate.”

The job wasn’t always easy.

“I work with organic material that gets insects and had to deal with cow fat. Because at first I didn’t understand the material enough, it felt like a bit of self-punishment; dealing with flies and losing studio mates. There was also a time when finances were a problem and the work wasn’t selling,” says Mntambo.

“In South Africa, we have few female black artists and sculptures. It took a long time to be accepted in certain circles in terms of how people interpret my work, and how they view me. You’re not allowed to exist as just as an artist or sculpture, you exist as a black female artist, so there all these preconceived ideas that people either put on you or their interpretation of the work. There are also strange limitations that people put on you,” she says.