Behold: Echidna, monster of monsters

Nandipha

ON the wings of Samothrace: a detail of Nandipha Mntambo’s Echidna. Photograph courtesy Stevenson Gallery.

THE SMELL OF resin assails you as you enter the space. It makes your nose sting, your eyes water, but the first work that you confront, a 3m-wide monoprint with gold leaf, grabs you and casts your discomfort into abeyance. As you fall into the urgency of this work, entitled Wild Thoughts, you might vaguely think you’ve hardly ever seen paintings or prints by Nandipha Mntambo before, but you’re too engrossed to step further. The work is roughly abstract but presents a parabola of thought and an engagement with colour and mark making that reveals Mntambo’s authority with this approach too.

Mntambo rose to prominence with her work Europa in 2008, an astonishing therianthrope, mixing the head of a mythical beast with her own. An artwork that conjoined animal fur with human flesh, live performer with constructed image, it was scary and sexy, provocative and disturbing at once. It was a work that made you look. And remember.

Now, almost 10 years later, with many exhibitions and accolades under her belt – this is her seventh solo at Stevenson – you get to see Mntambo stretching toward new heights. She’s still working in the mythical traditions, but her work is less obvious and even more potent.

On paper, The Snake You Left Inside Me is a modestly-sized exhibition. It features just 10 works. But when you arrive in the space, you will be overwhelmed, not only by the residue of resin in your nostrils, but by the energy, the sense of abstraction and the maturity of these pieces.

And so, as you wrench yourself from the work in the gallery’s vestibule, you get to see Moonlit Shadows and Wild Thoughts: works on paper using gold leaf that blast you in your solar plexus, with their complex simplicity. You will also see corrupted drum-like works – Mother and Child, Hubris and Ouroboros. They feature Mntambo’s signature use of animal skin stretched on a frame. You are able to look at them with a kind of dispassion, exploring the subtleties, understanding the nuance in the pieces.

Well and good, you might think, satisfied that this is a powerful exhibition. You might at that point turn to leave the gallery space. Don’t. There’s more.

Behind the wall separating the second gallery space from the third, lies Echidna. As you intrepidly enter the space – it’s dark and the work has the advantage over you – you come upon something that conjures up the disturbing realism of the work of Australian sculptor Patricia Piccinini, or that of Chinese sculptor Liu Xue. Only, it’s more. It’s like the denouement of a story, the classic pièce de résistance.

Echidna is gloriously half-woman/half-snake, reaching as she does from ancient Greek narrative. She’s the monster of all monsters, evoking in a poetic and understated way, the classic Winged Victory of Samothrace in the thrust presented by the resin-rich fabric, the potency of the pose, even though (or especially because) it is headless. The creature’s tail embraces the room with a furry muscularity that will make your hair stand on end, but will leave you unable to look quickly.

Balancing intelligent curatorial decisions with exceptionally fine work, The Snake You Left Inside Me offers a glance at the relevance of mythological contortions. It is a potent and terrifying exhibition that will not leave you untouched, as you walk back through the space, something squirming uncomfortably in your belly.

  •  The snake you left inside me by Nandipha Mntambo is at Stevenson Gallery, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, until January 19 2018. Visit stevenson.info or call 011 403 1055.
  • The gallery will be closed from December 16 until January 8.
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