Nandipha Mntambo is a South African artist whose mediums span across photography, sculpture, video, and mixed media. Her work addresses ongoing debates on gender expression and the complexities intrinsic to the colonised identity. Though she is mainly known for her cowhide sculptures, I’m particularly interested in her series Metamorphoses, and the ways in which she uses motifs from classical antiquity and the Middle Ages to construct the framework for a modern, self-actualised mythology.
The figure of The Minotaur is a recurring character in her work and is modelled after the artists’ own body. She presents viewers with a version of the black nude female body— a famously hypersexualised subject—contrasted with the fur and bull horns common in Greek mythology. She recasts the myth into a figure that is female, black, singular in its “otherness”—and rendered monstrous for it.
The concept of the “other” to dehumanise other cultures and ethnicities became an often-used term in post-colonial discourse.[mfn] However, perceptions on “othering” existed long before this point, and often took on the form of monsters. All the way back to the 11th century there was an intense fascination with the monsters in medieval Europe, and these illustrated monsters in the margins of Bibles were strongly associated with the exploration of other countries. Though most couldn’t read, images such as that of the Blemmyaewere regularly circulated.
So it’s not exactly The Exorcist, it looks like something a child might draw. However, the medieval viewer would see it quite differently. The head was considered one of the holiest aspects of the human and associated with masculinity. If the Blemmyae had their heads in their stomachs, not only were they not in God’s favour, they become associated with the feminine (they also thought being left-handed was feminine and therefore evil—of course).[mfn] By depicting a monster that was neither animal nor human, neither entirely masculine nor feminine, we begin to unravel cultural anxieties surrounding life outside the gender binary.
In 1510, French monk Ambroise Paré’s illustrated journal On Monsters and Marvels provides further visual representation of the fears that plagued medieval and early Renaissance conceptualisations of the monstrous. In his journal, Marvels are described as creatures that are ‘against Nature’, and the imagery surrounding them is centralised around the horror of the animal-human hybrid state. It was widely believed that if women were too exposed to knowledge, they would birth monsters with human bodies and animal heads. Throughout his journal there is an emphasis on the importance of limiting images that women should look at, and he cites the female imagination as “the fifth cause of monstrosity”.[mfn]
Through this sculpture of an African female Minotaur, Mntambo completely subverts early European mythologizing by creating a character based on her own body that celebrates its otherness. From colonial era caricatures to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in his best Halloween blackface, we haven’t always been allowed to construct our own narratives.
I mean…just look at this honestly. Sarah Baartmen, also known as the “Hottetot Venus” was given just a loincloth, put on a plinth like an object, and stared at, touched and objectified by white people all over Europe. She was shuffled, a whole human woman, from museum to museum to be gawked at. She had no agency, and her body was used as a way for white men to project sexual desire that was heavily policed in their own societies, but because she wasn’t seen as a person it was deemed okay.
Black women are still objectified and fetishised, we see it on TV and on Instagram, features that have been mocked for centuries are popular now, but only on non-black women, and only for commercial purposes. It’s easy to feel helpless, to not feel like you have control over the way people look at your body, no control of the associations and assumptions that are made of you and for you.
Mntambo details the process where the colonised body can be both the subject and the author of their own mythology. Her series Metamorphoses reveals the importance of not just participating in our own narratives but inventing new ones. Through her imagination the monstrous is powerful, and the ugly becomes beautiful and compelling. Though the bronze figure of the Minotaur looks out with a pensive gaze, I believe the figure is a hopeful one, an embodiment of what it means to explore beyond the binary and the power in telling your own stories.
Anthony Spanakos, “The Canvas of the Other: Fanon and Recognition,” DisClosure: A Journal of Social Theory 7, (1998): 11, https://doi.org/10.13023/DISCLOSURE.07.11.
Hardwick, Paul. “The Monsters at the Margins.” Chapter. In English Medieval Misericords: The Margins of Meaning, 135–53. Boydell & Brewer, 2011.