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.
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.’
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.