'I Exist': Inside Lebo Thoka’s cathedral of Black liberation

Melody Emmett, News24, 17 August 2021
  • Lebo Thoka is a fine art photographer. 
  • Her work is currently showing in Italy at an exhibition titled I Exist. 
  • Using Christian iconography, she glorifes Black South African women. 
With three solo exhibitions behind her, contemporary fine art photographer Lebo Thoka is now part of a joint exhibition with Kenyan photographer and filmmaker Margaret Ngigi in Italy. The exhibition, I Exist, is a collaborative venture between David Krut Projects in Johannesburg and the AKKA Project in Venice. 
Both artists are Black feminists and create images at the intersection of the personal and political while challenging perceptions and reflecting experiences of women in Africa.
Throughout Thoka’s work, religious imagery, icons and motifs associated with her Catholic upbringing are both a recurring theme and subtle rebellion against gender-based violence; the “trinity of class, race and gender”; and the absence or misrepresentation of Black people – particularly women – in conventional Christian iconography and religious art.
Thoka was 22 and still a student when she was introduced to David Krut Projects, which has supported her artistic growth and promoted her work over the past four years. 
Her first exhibition, It Is Well: Ode to Karabo, was inspired by the story of 22-year-old Karabo Mokoena, whose ex-boyfriend stabbed her 27 times, set her on fire and discarded her body at a dump.
In an interview in 2018, she said, “That story really resonated for me in terms of the way the media reacted to it and the way society reacted to it. So I decided to explore other stories about other women, because to me these women are not just stories, they are real women who lived lives and affected people – and I think it’s important to remember that. That is mainly what this entire body of work is about.” 
When creating each work, Thoka makes deliberate choices about colour, motifs, poses and titles. The result is a simultaneously captivating and shocking series.
Britt Lawton from David Krut Projects says, “Early on when I started promoting the work, some people struggled with that kind of duality. Very religious people questioned how you could bring the stories together with these very sacred themes. But in the art world it is all about challenging perceptions and I think she has handled it in a very sensitive way. You look at those images and they are absolutely beautiful and then you read the story and they are very disturbing.”
Explorations in black
Blackness is at the centre of Thoka’s explorations. “I have been aware of the history and depictions of Black people. I have always been fascinated with the colour … black and the name black and the historical assignment of the word black, which was ascribed to Black people to disenfranchise them from the start. It is very psychological and then it becomes social and then it becomes economic and expresses itself in various ways,” she says. 
By transmuting pictures of herself using digital enhancements and manipulation, and often darkening her skin, she transforms her subjects into deified icons that transcend the horror of their personal stories. “Rather than relating to them through the violence, I want to relate to them through their glory,” she says. “I believe that every woman is glorious and our glory is infinite.” 
While there appear to be parallels between Thoka’s process and the work of performative artists, for Thoka it is important that she is not recognised in her portraits. “Her work is performative, as she embodies the figures she depicts, so I would say performance is part of her practice but I wouldn’t say she identifies as a performance artist,” Lawton says.
Thoka puts herself on the line, emotionally and psychologically, and admits that she has to take care of her mental health while making the work. “It’s very important for me to learn when to observe and when to absorb,” she says.
Seeds of survival
In her second exhibition, Seeds of Dirt, Thoka explores the subjugation of domestic workers in society. Motivated by a documentary film on the experiences of domestic workers in South Africa, she reflects on their vulnerability because of their class, race, gender and occupation. 
The title came from a quote she found that she associated with Black women being metaphorically “buried”. To be impoverished, Black and a woman, you are “buried even lower in the ground”, Thoka says. One of the aims of this body of work is to encourage Black women to remember that their existence is larger than their experience. “They tried to bury us but they forgot that we were seeds,” she says, referencing a quote from poet Dinos Christianopoulos.
The subjects in the Seeds of Dirt collection are positioned in front of representations of stained glass windows. Once again, each portrait tells a devastating story. For instance, one of the works, Refuge of Sinners, tells the story of a domestic worker who was assaulted and verbally abused before being kicked out by her employer after he returned from church and found his bedroom had not been cleaned to his satisfaction.
Guiding liberation
In her most recent work, Thoka has moved away from portraiture to stained glass narratives with multiple figures. “I always found stained glass windows so beautiful and in my research I found they are mainly about storytelling. I wanted to create my own cathedral of sorts,” she says.
Religious imagery is so important to Thoka because of her childhood. “For me the first oppression I experienced was religious oppression. That was my first discovery of any kind of formal limitation on what I can say and what I can think, and in my work I have been grappling with that on a personal level.”
Growing up in a household where she was encouraged to read religious books as a child, Thoka imbibed the orthodox pictures offered to Catholic children. “I remember a book that had Mary in it and she was so beautiful. She had pale skin and dark hair and brown eyes and I will never forget how beautiful she was, and I remember thinking, ‘I don’t look like this.’ There would be stories where Jesus would encourage the children to come to him and none of the children looked like me … So my work grapples with that,” she says.  
In her latest work, the characters in the stained glass window scenes are all versions of Thoka herself and all related to various roles and names attributed to the biblical figure Mary. In a conversation with Kholeka Shange, Thoka says: “I think it is very important that I use myself and continue to use myself as the muse but make sure that I am not physically recognisable. 
“It’s really about me stepping into a character. I want to sort of guide Black womanhood’s liberation through this imagery, and that is why I create these scenes that are very spiritual, very symbolic, very graphic, very vibrant.”