THEY ARE ME AND I AM THEM

An artist em­pathises cre­atively with abused women, writes

Sunday Times - - Photograph­y - Melody Em­mett

‘In cre­at­ing my work, I be­come a part of a move­ment that’s lay­ing down bricks to build a wall rep­re­sent­ing women, non-bi­nary people and the is­sues we’re fac­ing,” says Lebo Thoka, a photograph­y grad­u­ate from the Open Win­dow In­sti­tute in Pre­to­ria. Her first body of work, It is well: An Ode to Karabo, was ex­hib­ited by David Krut Projects last year and se­lected for the 2018 Ad­dis Foto Fest.

Thoka was also one of 14 artists to par­tic­i­pate in the Bag Fac­tory artists’ stu­dios and Art Source’s Artist Ca­reer Boot Camp Pro­gramme this year.

At 23, Thoka, who’s cur­rently par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Be­tween 10and5 Artist’s Pro­gramme while work­ing as a com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­pher, sees her­self as just start­ing her ca­reer. In­spired by artists like Gabrielle Go­liath, whose work re­flects the cross-cut­ting im­pact of colo­nial­ism, apartheid, pa­tri­ar­chal power and rape cul­ture on women, Thoka bases her work on the re­cur­rent me­dia ac­counts of femi­cide in SA.

“When th­ese events hap­pen and I read about the sto­ries, even though I have not lived them, I em­pathise with and re­spect the women. This fu­els my anger that some women are abused,” she says.

Thoka aims to im­mor­talise sub­jects from di­verse racial, cul­tural and so­cioe­co­nomic cir­cum­stances. “All women are vul­ner­a­ble to vi­o­lence, no mat­ter where they come from, but rather than re­lat­ing to them through the vi­o­lence they ex­pe­ri­ence, I want to re­mind th­ese women of their glory and how it con­nects us.”

Her distinctiv­e tech­nique en­com­passes photograph­y and image re­touch­ing. Her work be­gins with a photo shoot in which she is the sub­ject. “The ideas come or­gan­i­cally. They start with a small spark that I write down and ex­pand on. I’m in­ten­tional about ev­ery­thing that’s in the work. I write ev­ery­thing down, ev­ery colour, ev­ery mo­tif.

And I ques­tion my­self along the way so that I fully un­der­stand the rea­sons for my choices.”

Form­ing the work around her own self­im­age is part of Thoka’s em­pa­thetic process. She iden­ti­fies with each sub­ject. De­tach­ment is only pos­si­ble once the work is com­plete and has taken on a life of its own.

Speak­ing about re­ac­tions to her first ex­hi­bi­tion, Thoka says: “On the open­ing night people didn’t be­lieve it was me in the por­traits be­cause I look so dif­fer­ent; I was trans­formed. That was the goal. The por­traits are not about me, they’re about the women I por­tray but they are me and I am them.”

Born in Jo­han­nes­burg and raised by re­li­gious Chris­tian par­ents, Thoka’s jour­ney as an artist has mo­ti­vated her to ques­tion the sway of re­li­gion in her life. “I grav­i­tated to­wards re­li­gious mo­tifs, but be­gan to re­alise the in­flu­ence of pa­tri­archy in re­li­gion … I’m now try­ing to find a spir­i­tual path out­side the realm of re­li­gion,” she says. “Part of my jour­ney has been to un­learn ways of see­ing things.

“I’ve fo­cussed on un­pack­ing black­ness. By black­ness I mean from the colour black to ‘black’ from a so­ci­o­log­i­cal per­spec­tive, to black­ness in lit­er­a­ture, to black within what the word means sym­bol­i­cally, to black as the colour of the uni­verse … I also ex­plore the neg­a­tive as­so­ci­a­tions we have of black­ness.”

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s words come to mind when view­ing Thoka’s work:

You dark­ness, that I come from,

I love you more than all the fires that fence in the world, for the fire makes a cir­cle of light for ev­ery­one, and then no-one out­side learns of you.

But the dark­ness pulls in ev­ery­thing: shapes and fires, an­i­mals and my­self, how eas­ily it gath­ers them! — pow­ers and people — and it is pos­si­ble a great en­ergy is mov­ing near me.

I have faith in nights.

Karabo Mokoena, 22, stabbed 27 times by her exboyfrien­d, set on fire and dis­carded on a dump­site.

Si­nox­olo Mafe­vuka, 19 years old, found naked and mur­dered and thrown into a com­mu­nal toi­let.

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