From femicide to glory: the work of Lebo Thoka*

Lebo Thoka’s art does not deny the horror and brutality experienced by victims of femicide. Rather she proclaims the inherent dignity of the women, that can never be taken away from them.
A version of this article was first published by Sunday Times Lifestyle.

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

“IN CREATING MY WORK, I FEEL THAT I AM PART OF A MOVEMENT THAT IS LAYING DOWN BRICKS TO BUILD A WALL REPRESENTING WOMEN, NON-BINARY PEOPLE, AND THE ISSUES WE ARE FACING.”

A photography graduate from the Open Window Institute in Pretoria, Lebo Thoka’s first body of work: It is well: An Ode to Karabo  was exhibited by David Krut Projects in 2018. Subsequently, it was selected for the 2018 Addis Foto Fest, which brings together 20 photographers from across the continent.

“It was incredible to be chosen to be part of a collective of upcoming photographers from different backgrounds and different countries…and to see how much potential Africa has in art and in photography.”  

Thoka was one of 14 artists to participate in the Bag Factory artists’ studios’ and Art Source’s Artist Career Boot Camp Programme in 2019. Two of the works from the series she is currently working on were displayed as part of an exhibition mounted by The Bag Factory and the National Arts Council at the end of the programme. 

At 23, Thoka, who is currently participating in the Between 10and5 Artist’s Programme while working as a professional photographer in the commercial world, sees herself as just starting out on her career. Inspired by the creations of 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 recurrent media accounts of femicide in South Africa.

“When these events happen and I read about the stories, even though I have not lived these events, I empathise with the women and have incredible respect for them. This fuels my anger. In a sense my love fuels my anger.”

Jeanette Cindi-Mabitsela, 34 years old, five months pregnant, raped, stoned, doused in petrol and set alight by a gang of taxi drivers

Thoka aims to glorify and immortalise her subjects who come from diverse race, cultural and socio-economic circumstances.  

“All women are vulnerable to violence, no matter where they come from but rather than relating to them through the violence, I want to relate to them through their glory. I want to remind women of our glory and how it connects us.”

Her distinctive technique encompasses photography and image retouching. Her work begins with a photo shoot with/of herself.  “The  ideas come quite organically. They start with a small idea that I write down and expand while I am researching.  I am very intentional about everything that is in the work.  I write everything down, every colour, every single motif.  And I question myself along the way so that I fully understand the reason for my choices.  The why of what I do is very important to me. This is what drives me.”

Finally, the work comes to life digitally and is printed.  The framing process  is critical for Thoka.  “I always have a vision of how the work should exist in whatever space it exists in.”

Karoba Mokoena, 22 years old, stabbed by her ex-boyfriend 27 times, set on fire and discarded on a dumpsite

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

Speaking about reactions at her first exhibition, Thoka says: “I found it quite amazing that on the opening night, people didn’t believe it was me in the portraits because I looked so different; I was transformed.  That was the goal. The portraits are not about me, they are about the women I portrayed but they are me and I am them.”

Born and raised by religious Christian parents in Johannesburg, Thoka’s journey as an artist has motivated her to question the sway of religion in her life.  “I found myself gravitating towards religious motifs and then began to realise the influence of patriarchy in religion.” This set her on a trajectory to explore other expressions of spirituality. “I am trying to find a spiritual path outside the realm of religion,” she says.  “Part of my journey of spirituality has been unlearning ways of seeing things.”   

“I have been focusing on unpacking blackness. By blackness I mean from the colour black to black from the sociological perspective, to black within literature, to black within what it means symbolically, to black as the colour of the universe…. Blackness is everything, it is the reason why we are here, yet we fear it so much. I am exploring the negative associations we have of blackness….”

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s words come to mind:

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.

*First published in Sunday Times Lifestyle

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