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Lebo Thoka: Guiding ‘black womanhood’s liberation’

Lebo Thoka: Guiding ‘black womanhood’s liberation’
"Black of my flesh" by Lebo Thoka. Image: Courtesy of AKKA Project and the artist

South African fine-arts photographer Lebo Thoka has been selected as one of 35 photographers featured in the 6th edition of the Photo Vogue Festival: Reframing History. The photographers were selected through an Open Call on Photo Vogue, Picter and Instagram. On Picter alone, 24,913 images by 2,513 photographers from 98 different countries on six continents were submitted.

Quoting Chinua Achebe, festival organisers say their aim was to find a “balance of stories” by exploring projects or works that reframe “omitted, forgotten, and overlooked historical figures to works that reclaim an idea of beauty that has been diminished, stereotyped or exorcised”.

A black feminist with a mission to “guide black womanhood’s liberation” through her work, Thoka chooses as her subjects women who have been abused, murdered, exploited, marginalised, made invisible. She is her own model; all her works are technically manipulated interpretations of her own self-image. She reframes her subjects (and herself) by exalting them using Christian icons, motifs, imagery and symbols. 

There is a saying allegedly originating with Jesuit monks long ago: “Give us a boy until the age of seven, and he will be a Catholic for life.”  

This could perhaps be applied to Thoka, who grew up in a religious Catholic home and was encouraged to read religious storybooks and literature from a young age. She has rebelled against her Catholicism and the picture books, where the children and Mary were invariably white. “I remember this book that had Mary in and she was so beautiful, she was white and had pale skin and dark hair and brown eyes and I will never forget how beautiful she was and I remember that I thought: I don’t look like this,” she said.

“Karabo Mokoena” by Lebo Thoka. Image: Supplied.

Thoka’s rebellion comes across in all her work. Interestingly, one of her early subjects – and the only white woman in her work – Reeva Steenkamp, is transformed into a black woman, also developed out of an image of Thoka herself. 

Although Thoka may have uprooted herself from traditional Catholic teachings, her default position is to frame her work in very detailed Christian imagery, which she uses to “create these scenes that are very spiritual, very symbolic, very graphic, very vibrant”.    

“Jeanette Cindi-Mabitsela” by Lebo Thoka. Image: Supplied.

Her artworks evoke the visions or illuminations of medieval mystics like Hildegard of Bingen, or the “showings” of Julian of Norwich, the celebrated Christian visionary whose religious experiences, centred on the “motherhood” of Christ, constitute her “Revelations of Divine Love”, which is still considered one of the most remarkable documents of medieval religious experience.

“And all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well”, Julien of Norwich recorded from one of her “showings”.

“It Is Well: An Ode To Karabo” was the title of Thoka’s first exhibition of works by David Krut Projects in 2016. The image of Karabo Mokoena, who was stabbed 27 times by her ex-boyfriend, set on fire, and discarded on a dumpsite, is the one selected by the Photo Vogue Festival.

“Unknown Woman” by Lebo Thoka. Image: Supplied.

Other subjects of Thoka’s first exhibition are: An unidentified woman, murdered and discarded onto a dumpsite in Mofolo; Thembisile Yende, 30 years old, went missing after exposing illegal dealings in copper at Eskom; her decomposed body was found in an office, she was drugged, beaten and strangled; Bongeka Phungula, 28 years old, found murdered, discarded onto a dumpsite in Tladi with gunshot wounds in her head; Nonhle Charmaine Mbonambi, 2016, 24 years old, stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend; she left three children behind; Jeanette Cindi-Mabitsela, 34 years old, five months pregnant, raped, stoned, doused in petrol and set alight by a gang of taxi drivers; Reeva Steenkamp, 29 years old, shot three times by her boyfriend on Valentines’ Day

All Thoka’s subjects are transformed into religious icons, often echoing Renaissance portraits of Mary.

“I normally choose a Mary figure and that is just what has always called to me… to sort of create the figure that I wish I had seen in the beginning. And I think I would have had a very different relationship with divinity,” Thoka said.

“Sinoxolo Mafevuka” by Lebo Thoka. Image: Supplied.

By reframing what President Cyril Ramaphosa has referred to as the “second pandemic” of violence against women, Thoka – perhaps unwittingly – also reframes the stories of women of history.

Mary became especially popular in the Catholic Church in the aftermath of the horrific burning of witches – primarily women – in the Middle Ages, in what some feminist theologians have referred to as the “women’s holocaust”.

“The stench of their burning is with us yet. The stakes and gibbets where witches perished by the tens of thousands during early modern times still stand in popular imagination,” American medievalist and writer Sandra Miesel writes. 

Many of the women who were burnt at the stake were healers or midwives who were drawn to the feminine face of God, as was Julian of Norwich.

When Mary’s status was elevated in the Church, terms that these women used to refer to the divinity were adopted in reference to Mary: Queen of Heaven, Mother of Mercy, Holy Queen, etc. Some radical feminists have said that the red or maroon robes that the cardinals of the Church began to wear in the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance – and wear to this day –  did not originate as an outward sign of their willingness to shed their blood in defence of the Catholic faith, but in order to emulate the colour of menstrual blood and somehow capture its mysterious powers.

“Health of the Sick” by Lebo Thoka. Image: Supplied

In her second exhibition, also with David Krut Projects, Thoka glorifies and immortalises domestic workers who have been exploited or abused.

Again the influence of Mariology is consciously evident in each image. The exhibition, Seeds of Dirt, draws strongly on images of Mary.  

“Mary has at least 15 different titles. That is how loved she is,” Thoka said in an interview with Dr Kholeka Shange, hosted by David Krut Projects. “I found it interesting and I basically used a few names (because there are a lot of them) to name each iteration of this version of Mary.”

“Mother Inivolate” by Lebo Thoka. Image: Supplied

In her latest work, Thoka has gravitated to religious scenes of groups of women, inspired by stained glass windows in Catholic churches, which already began to emerge as backdrops to her ‘Seeds of Dirt’ series. Called once again to make the stories of black women known, she is developing a unique form of religious storytelling, again with herself as the muse for each character. 

“Refuge of Sinners” by Lebo Thoka. Image: Supplied

“Mother undefiled” by Lebo Thoka. Image: Supplied

These and her other works were part of a joint exhibition with Kenyan photographer and filmmaker Margaret Ngigi in Italy. The exhibition entitled ‘I exist’, was a collaborative venture between David Krut Projects in Johannesburg and the AKKA Project in Venice. 

According to Britt Lawton of David Krut Projects, Thoka’s next exhibition will be more focused on “stained glass” narratives with multiple figures. DM/ML

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