Nandipha Mntambo is one of the most important South African artists of her generation.

Born in 1982 in Mbabane, Swaziland, she came to international prominence in the mid-2000s with a body of work using cowhide, transformed into strange and evocative garments that are simultaneously alluring and repulsive, sensuous and abject, deeply embedded in cultural references and thoroughly contemporary. The scope of her work has expanded over the past decade to include photography, video, printmaking and painting. With DISSONANCE, she grows her artistic oeuvre to work with master perfumer Tammy Frazer.

How does launching a fragrance fit into your identity as an artist?

 I met Tammy Frazer, through her project ‘Skin Portraits, catalogued by The Smithsonian Museum of African Art as the first-ever scent ‘novella’. It was about creating fragrances centred around aspects of people’s vocations and things they like. She was intrigued by the possibility of creating a scent that would evoke the smell and the feel of the work I make in cowhide. Obviously, we couldn’t make a fragrance that smelled of raw cowhide, as it had to be a scent that one would want to wear, but Tammy’s idea was that it should in some way suggest the material. I was intrigued by the way in which she was thinking about combining the two elements, and we decided to work together after that. The name ‘DISSONANCE came quite easily, as it evokes the inherent contradictions of the idea, as well as the differences in our professional backgrounds.

I have always enjoyed collaboration. One can’t have the skills that everyone else has, and the insight that I gain into something that is foreign to me creates interesting spaces in my own work. Having discussions with Tammy about the concept of fragrance, and the combinations and chemistry that produce it, made me excited both about creating something new from scratch and how that might, in turn, inspire new artwork.

Has this scent journey in any way taken you away from the visual journey?

No, because it’s been part of the what I do for so long. The smells of the materials are not pleasant, but they have become familiar. I now know, for example, if I’ve left the cowhide in the water for too long, as there’s a smell that I can identify that tells me it’s starting to rot. When I started out, I didn’t know how to control material, but now that I do it’s deeply fulfilling. I have control over the end product, and this is restful and satisfying. I suppose you could say smell has become fundamental to my technique.

The release of the DISSONANCE fragrance is combined with a limited-edition print…

I became interested in different media through my exposure to them at art school. Discovering lithography was particularly exciting and challenging. I like working with the ink, creating layers in a way that is more like painting than printmaking. At the same time, I was also challenging myself to think of prints as drawings, as sketches for other works. I also began playing with gold leaf in the prints, which has, in turn, become part of my painting practice.

The optics of gold and cowhide are very different. How do you work with this? 

That’s simple. Sculpture doesn’t answer the same questions as printmaking; printmaking doesn’t answer the same question as a photograph; a photograph doesn’t answer the same question as a video. I work through all these media because they engage different questions, themes and ideas – the work that results is always very different, and encourages me to think differently about what it is that I do.

Your prints and paintings are characterised by a narrow colour palette. What is the significance of the colours you do use?

I’ve never been a colourist. I think colours can be confusing or distracting – I find if there is too much going on in an artwork, it distracts from what I want to be looking at. It is probably something about my experience of working with oil paints that made me stick to a limited palette. There is something very compelling about being able to mix your own colours, particularly when you look back at the origins of oil painting. The medium developed out of a limited range of pigments, and I have always been drawn to the earthy, darker tones that evoke the atavistic quality of the medium.

So, would it be fair to say that the use of gold in your work is ‘dissonant’?

Yes. It comes down to my interest in process. In the prints, the gold leaf has a life of its own: while you do what you can to control how it is laid down, depending on the ambient temperature, the weather, the degree of humidity, how the ink is reacting… it may just lift off in certain areas. In that way, each print is unique, despite being a multiple. I have learned to embrace this as part of the process, and to let it go. Working with cowhide, my sense is that sculpture is organic. Although I have some degree of control over the medium, the nature of the material is such that there are some things that I can’t control. Similarly, in my painting or printing, the gold leaf sometimes doesn’t work in ways that I’ve expected.

Putting your name – your personality or persona – to a fragrance is a bold step. Was it similar to your performance work, and would you consider the fragrance a performance?

The fragrance is an extension of my artwork, it is all part of the same process. Arriving at a scent meant having to go into Tammy’s laboratory to smell things. The act of doing this was something of a performance in itself. The collaborative element is paramount, as the perfume is entirely dependent on someone else, someone who has the skill to make the fragrance make sense in the way that I can accept it as part of my body of work.

Packaging and labeling are such an important part of the perfume industry. How did you arrive at the packaging decisions for DISSONANCE?

Emerald green as a colour came quite easily me, as I’d been working with it for the preceding four years. Tammy mentioned that it was ‘colour of the year’ in the year in which we started working, which seemed serendipitous. As regards the bottle, it was always going to be an organic, rounded shape, as these are the shapes that make sense to me and have informed my practice as a sculptor.

The packaging was more complex. We started out thinking that we could combine aspects of my Swazi heritage in the overall design concept, so we went on a road trip looking at Swazi woven baskets. However, this began feeling a bit forced, as if we were imposing onto the fragrance a token cultural element that it didn’t need. Instead, we looked at other options that relate to both our practices, and decided on leather. Initially, we thought to have gold as part of the packaging, but in fact this then became part of the work. Throughout, it has been a fruitful collaboration, making decisions that are true to Tammy and to me, yet creating something that has its own integrity.

Dissonance is produced in a limited edition of 20, with each ‘artist’s box’ in the edition including a hand-blown glass bottle by David Reade, perfume by Tammy Frazer and two unique gold leafed lithographic prints by Nandipha Mntambo. Research Unit designed the leather packaging, inspired by Nandipha’s work in cowhides. Editions will retail for R47000 each, excl VAT, and are available to view (or purchase) at Robert Sherwood in Cape Town.