art, city, houses

artist nandipha mntambo’s heritage Joburg home

Elsa Young
Vintage couches, thick-weave cushions from La Grange Interiors and velvet scatters from Tonic Design serve as textural elements in the eclectic living space. Alongside the grey couch is a set of brass and lacquer nesting tables, also from La Grange Interiors, above which hangs a colourful Nelson Makamo portrait and beaded ‘Renaissance’ portrait of Henry IV by Zimbabwe-born artist Dan Halter. On the right, one of Nandipha’s own works, ‘Untitled’, and a black and white photograph named ‘Man Washing Clothes’ by Andrew Tshabangu overlooks a brass and malachite sidetable from Weylandts, an Egg Designs Puzzle lamp in brass, a chrome 1960s Norwegian chair that the artist discovered in a thrift shop, and a woven basket, also from Egg Designs. The glass coffee table was purchased at an auction when Nandipha first moved to Joburg.

A major renovation has let the light back into artist Nandipha Mntambo’s heritage house in Kensington, Johannesburg, where she has made a home for herself and her daughter, and acquired some much-needed space for her growing collection of art and furniture.

Following the birth of Isiuwa (a Nigerian-Beninese name that originates from her father’s side of the family) two years ago, Nandipha – famous for her cowhide sculptures, film work, paintings and printmaking – knew she had outgrown her industrial space in Johannesburg’s inner city. She wanted a place where Isiuwa could spend more time outside, and room to build a studio big enough to accommodate her works.

‘I didn’t want Isiuwa to have a childhood without somewhere green to play,’ says Nandipha. ‘I saw her playing with toys in the concrete parking lot and I knew we had to move. This just looked like just the right place where we could grow up together, and one that could grow with us.’ The artist adds that when she found the house, it had all the character typical of old Joburg suburbia, including weathered Oregon pine floors, decorative pressed steel ceilings and stained-glass doors.

Nandipha Mntambo relaxes in her preloved chrome chair.

Striking red accents on a Scandinavian chair and a cushion from the Keiskamma Art Project in the Eastern Cape pick up on those in an artwork featuring King Henry IV, a collaborative effort by artist Dan Halter and beaders from Monkeybiz in Cape Town. On the coffee table is a second Yoruba crown from Amatuli, a cow figurine from a secondhand market in Berlin, and a vase from Nandipha’s extensive array of glassware – filled with irises from her garden; an Ayanda Mabulu painting presides over a newly installed fireplace behind Nandipha’s beloved vintage couch and a basket from Egg Designs.

An early work by Burundi-born artist Serge Alain Nitegeka welcomes visitors to the Kensington, Johannesburg, home of artist Nandipha Mntambo. In the foyer of the abode, built in 1931, is a Pintxada chair from Egg Designs, which has been upholstered in Terranea Zebra Java fabric by Ralph Lauren. The unusual industrial floor lamp was originally designed by Nandipha to create a more friendly but functional studio light for her sculpture and printmaking studio.

The passage of time had not been kind to the property, however. It needed a new garden, a structural overhaul and careful restoration to the bits that remained. Not one to be overcome by the demands of motherhood and her busy career, Nandipha saw it as exactly the sort of task she enjoys. ‘I love getting messy with projects,’ says the artist. ‘In fact, I just love projects in general, and this house had so much going for it.’

Extensive restoration work resulted in a light and airy space painted in cool grey tones, with pops of colour throughout. And those pale grey walls form an excellent backdrop for the artist’s collection of African art, Scandinavian furniture and retro collectibles.

Nandipha had several walls removed to open up the living, dining and kitchen spaces, and undertook extensive restoration work on the floors and ceilings. The result is a light and airy space painted in cool grey tones, with pops of colour throughout. And those pale grey walls form an excellent backdrop for the artist’s collection of African art, Scandinavian furniture and retro collectibles. 

An enormous Serge Alain Nitegeka artwork dominates the entrance hall, along with a Jane Alexander painting and a cabinet laden with 1970s tinted glass vessels. Nandipha explains that the Nitegeka piece – an early work – was bought long before the artist became the superstar he is today. The Alexander work, she says, was acquired via a trade, and the glassware accumulated over many years at auctions and thrift shops.

‘I’ve always been interested in collecting and understanding how my contemporaries create work, so I’ve gone to other artists’ studios to understand the different modes of art production,’ Nandipha says. ‘Once I’d established myself, I started buying a lot of the work because I understand how difficult the art process can be for an artist. I wanted to encourage artists younger than me, those commercially younger in the market, and also my contemporaries, and feed into their production somehow. So whenever I had money to spare, I committed to buying work from other people. But I’ve also been lucky to get some amazing gifts from my friends, who have recently also started spoiling Isiuwa on her birthday.’

Nandipha bought a cabinet at a market that she lacquered blue, which now showcases a vignette of retro vessels in the entrance hall. Above it hangs an artwork by Jane Alexander.

When it comes to furniture, Nandipha prefers vintage. ‘A lot of the pieces I have are secondhand. I’m not big on buying new things – I prefer rummaging in hospice bins, or auctions, and because I really like the 1940s to the 1970s in terms of design and furniture, that’s the sort of thing I have naturally ended up collecting.’ 

In the living room, a vintage couch is positioned just the right distance from the fireplace Nandipha recently installed. The couch, she explains, has been with her for 15 years. She picked it up outside a studio at Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town, where she studied fine art, and it has since moved with her from studio to studio and been re-covered three times. 

‘It was just thrown out at Michaelis, left on the rubbish pile, and I really have an eye for linear design, so when I saw it, I was like, “I have to have that couch!” For some reason, over the years I haven’t been able to get rid of it. At one stage, I think I even threw a white sheet over it to cover up the holes, but then I kept it and just continued reupholstering it,’ she says with a laugh.

The backyard is a work in progress, but the vegetable garden, planted by Nandipha’s mother and tended to by Isiuwa and Nandipha, has been one of her favourite parts of putting their home together. ‘Now that we have a garden, it made sense to use it as a teaching tool for Isiuwa to understand how food actually gets onto the table,’ she says. ‘I really wanted my daughter to understand that, but it’s also about having a fun project and spending time outdoors.’

Would she renovate again? ‘Absolutely, but my advice is to expect to lose money during your renovation; expect to lose patience, but be open to changes in what you think your plan is. Things never go as smoothly as you hope, yet if you trust yourself, it will all work out in the end.’ And Nandipha’s inviting, art-filled home is certainly proof of her assertion.

Walls were knocked down to make space for the light-filled dining area, which features some of the artist’s early self-portraits and a classic Modernist glass table with a display of coloured glassware from La Grange Interiors.

Sharing the space above the original ball-and-claw bath, surrounded by 1930s marble tiles, is a Zander Blom oil painting on the left, a drawing by Kemang Wa Lehulere, and a photograph on the right by Sabelo Mlangeni.

A Wayne Barker print, given as a gift to Isiuwa, leans on a vintage sideboard behind a grouping of menorahs from Nandipha’s collection, which she started as a learner at King David Primary School in Victory Park.

Graphic prints are a key element in the artist’s bedroom: an Amatuli mudcloth throw and pillow complement a 2008 self-portrait by Nandipha called ‘Europa’ and a painting by French-Ivorian artist Valérie Oka in one corner. A Flos light from Tonic Design on the cerulean chest of drawers provides added illumination.