THEY ARE ME AND I AM THEM
An artist empathises creatively with abused women, writes
‘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.