Black Skin, White Masks: Bharti Kher and Nandipha Mntambo

Pamila Gupta

In this essay, I contemplate black skin as a form of landscape in the artworks of Bharti Kher (India) and Nandipha Mntambo (South Africa). Both female artists were recently featured in the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation’s inaugural exhibition, Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South, which opened in September 2020 during a global health pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. Together, they make the theme of black skin and white masks (a play on Frantz Fanon’s famous 1952 book) that much more relevant to the world as we now understand it in 2023. In other words, Fanon’s title and focus on psychic interiority lend themselves as a framing device precisely because they are so weirdly prescient of these two intertwined world-historical events in their aligning of black (skin) with white (masks).

Earlier that year, in February 2020, I was physically there, in attendance at Arjun Appadurai’s opening lecture for JCAF’s institutional launch, drinking chilled white wine, in a newly transformed, red-brick, industrialised space, in proximity to other bodies in the room, amongst friends and strangers, celebrating art and life. That moment of innocence seems so distant from where we stand now, after having worn white N95 protective masks over our faces for two years to save humanity, and watching from the safety of our homes as masked citizens took to the streets across the US to protest the violent death of a Black man named George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020. This would become a larger global movement appropriately called Black Lives Matter (BLM). These two planetary happenings coalesced, and we were forced to realise more than ever that we are fragile, gendered, racialised and sexualised animal beings caught in our own skin(s). 

It is from this post-pandemic, post-BLM vantage point that I now return my own female gaze to the powerful artworks of Bharti Kher and Nandipha Mntambo, two female artists who reflect my own Global South diasporic backgrounds of India (where I was born, but not raised) and South Africa (where I have lived since 2005).  Kher and Mntambo are always self-referential, employing their own black skin(s) and subjectivity(s) as their source of inspiration, point of reflection, as materiality, medium and canvas for their photographic and sculptural works. They too share the theme of the female physical body in its multiple forms – as hybrid creatures caught between animal and human, warriors, martyrs, mothers, daughters and, lest we forget, as artists at home in the world.

Bharti Kher, Self portrait (2007). Courtesy the artist and Galerie Perrotin. Photo Bharti Kher Studio

Kher’s oeuvre is subtle and complex in its approach to womanhood and femininity in relation to her own black skin. An early photographic work featured in the exhibit is entitled Self Portrait (2007). It shows her posing for the camera with a sideways glance. Her eyes have a searching and searing look to them, and her face is a painted mask (to invoke Fanon once again), hiding, transforming her feminine features with a prosthetic, pink-coloured nose, enlarged lips, white powdered skin and heavy black liner surrounding her main facial features. Her look borders on being half monkey/half clown, half human/half animal. That is the point. Her hair is messy, pulled up into a hasty bun, with tendrils spiraling out onto her luminous skin in the landscaped folds of her neck and clavicle, down to her bare shoulders where the photograph cuts off the rest of her physical body.

“These two planetary happenings coalesced, and we were forced to realise more than ever that we are fragile, gendered, racialised and sexualised animal beings caught in our own skin(s).”

Bharti Kher, Warrior with cloak and shield (2008). Courtesy the artist and Galerie Perrotin. Photo Guillaume Ziccarelli

What is her message? “Keep looking at me” is what I see. It is a critique of colonialism, of Western ideals of feminine beauty, of race as a marker easily identified and based wholly on skin and facial features that she chooses to disrupt and disguise. The artwork is both comical relief and poignant self-reflection. The theme of black skin comes up again in her second piece in the exhibit, Warrior with cloak and shield (2008). This time, the life-size, sculptured female figure stands tall and proud, with an oversized banana leaf (a symbol of abundance and fertility) serving as a shield to her vulnerable naked skin. Her cloak dangles precariously from one of the snake-like outgrowths on her head, which can also be likened to tree branches. Akin to Medusa in Greek mythology, Kher’s warrior is a signifier of fatal beauty, only she is not a sole product of the West.

Bharti Kher, Mother (2016). Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, London and New York. Photo Jeetin Sharma

Kher’s third work in the exhibit feels different, of an alternate time and place. Entitled Mother (2016), it features a sculptural figuration of Kher’s real mother’s life-size body cast in plaster. It is an act of homage. This mother figure is encased in white rather than her own natural brown skin tone. She is almost featureless, without hair, and with pendulating breasts and belly, including folds of skin that reveal the landscape of an ageing woman’s body. This mother is also seated on a wooden stool, her hands resting on her thighs. She is comfortable in her own skin, a thing of abstraction, to represent all Mothers. Together, these three seminal works by Kher point to the power of skin to convey the multiple layered identities that women have taken on, past, present and future, and suggest the closeness of human, animal and plant pluriverses that crisscross the Global South.

Nandipha Mtambo, Europa (2008). Collection of the artist. Image courtesy Stevenson, Johannesburg and Cape Town

Nandipha Mntambo’s artworks carry our imaginations on a different journey of black skin in relation to an overlapping set of gendered themes related to the human, animal and planetary, and which are very much in dialogue with Kher’s artworks. Her photographic work Europa (2008) provincialises this continent of white colonial dominance by turning the Greek myth of Princess Europa on its head. Far from being an idealised Western beauty, this female figure (Mntambo herself in disguise) has blackened, rough skin, hair and nose, and four large protruding horns. As in Kher’s Self Portrait (2007), made one year previously, it is her piercing eyes that swallow you and suggest that we humans can no longer be moored to purely Western ideals, that we are almost fully animal, not so far from them (as Other). Here too, folds of luminous skin show off a landscape of neck and collar bones, and part of one protruding breast – all hints of her female sex. This is reminiscent of Kher’s photographic image of herself, thoughtfully positioned next to Mntambo’s work in the exhibit, both having pride of place on one wall.

Nandipha Mntambo, Sengifikile (2009). Dr KOP Matseke Collection. Image courtesy Stevenson, Johannesburg and Cape Town

Mntambo returns to her physical body as material and medium for her second piece, Sengifikile (2009), a reference to the isiZulu word meaning “I have arrived”. A bronze sculptural bust that uses her own corporeality is the foundation, only its half human, half animal figure is in the guise of a bull, with two horns and large, protruding ears. In Mntambo’s hands, this work upends the idea of an idealised European bust as a thing of natural beauty. Rather, this she-figure is both appealing and monstrous, suggesting that (self) love and (self) hatred are in tension with one another and perhaps not so far off relationally, yet another reference to the psychoanalytic framing of Fanon. The artist plays with the dual meaning of the word bust, as both a sculpture of a person’s head, shoulders and chest, and as a woman’s chest as measured around her breasts. Mntambo surprises us, however, by disfiguring this already atypical bust, lopping off the breasts and arms halfway whilst she is still held high on her pedestal. Her chocolate brown skin glistens while her serene, sculpted face with its closed eyes suggests the (almost) accepted fate of the human becoming fully animal.

“Kher and Mntambo are always self-referential, employing their own black skin(s) and subjectivity(s) as their source of inspiration, point of reflection, as materiality, medium and canvas for their photographic and sculptural works.”

Nandipha Mntambo, What Remains (2019). Southern: a Contemporary Collection. Image courtesy Stevenson, Johannesburg and Cape Town

What Remains (2019) is Mntambo’s third artwork in the exhibition. Similar to Kher’s Mother (2016), it feels like the product of a different time and place. It is a large piece of cowhide (a symbol of masculinity not only in South Africa where the artist is from, but globally) that has been manipulated to look like skin, replete with wrinkles and folds. There is a small, cast-metal horn on the lower, right-hand corner that reminds the viewer of whence it came. On one level, it stands alone as a powerful indictment of gendered and racialised human and animal worlds, its leitmotif of “remains” fitting, given that it was made in 2019, just before the global health pandemic and Black Lives Matter with which I began my essay. On another level, it works as a deeply textured and historical landscape set against the red brick wall directly behind Kher’s Warrior with Cloak and Shield (2008). The juxtaposition of these two pieces by Mntambo and Kher suggests a carefully curated continuous dialogue of Global South artworks. In addition, they jointly return us to the treatise that Fanon wrote 70 years ago, that of black skin and white masks, and to its appeal to recover our humanity regardless of race or skin colour, which has returned full circle, and ever more pressing. 

Biography

Pamila Gupta holds a PhD in Anthropology from Columbia University. She is Research Professor at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa, affiliated with the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies (CGAS), and was a professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (2008–2022). Her research interests include Portuguese colonial and Jesuit missionary history in India; monsoons, wetness and islandness in the Indian Ocean; tourism, heritage and design in Goa; decolonisation, photography and visual cultures in East Africa (Mozambique and Zanzibar); and architecture, infrastructure and affect in South Africa.


How to cite this article:
Pamila Gupta (2024), "Black Skin, White Masks: Bharti Kher and Nandipha Mntambo" in JCAF Journal: Interdisciplinary Knowledge from the South No. 1. https://jcafjournal.org.za/black-skin-white-masks-bharti-kher-and-nandipha-mntambo/. Accessed 25 April 2024.