The woman in the image stares at us with disinterest. There is a self-assured confidence in her gaze that contrasts sharply with the faded paintwork and chipped plaster of the brick outhouse behind her. The artificial green door of the Portaloo in the middle distance — a sight sadly familiar in the many informal settlements that dot the South African landscape — is jarring against the softer and more fertile hues of the maize that she clutches to her breast, and that is also strapped to her head with a bright white sash.
The title of this evocative work is Mbona Lisa II, and it is part of a series of photographic collages by Lesego Seoketsa. This dynamic and intelligent young artist has her finger in many pies, having studied fashion at Lisof, starting her own garment collection called Rise, and also being gifted with a keen eye behind the lens of a camera. After a short stint at university studying biological science, Seoketsa realised something essential was missing and that led her to the doors of Lisof, where a BA in fashion gave her an appreciation for the intricacies of identity politics. “That’s where I think I learned how to develop my practice in art. That really shifted my approach. Maybe I’m just finding a way to merge the two worlds?”
The Mbona Lisa series, she tells me, is a way for her to navigate her position as a black South African woman through visual cues and symbolism that hold intense personal meaning. “I had these consistent thoughts about my position in the world as a woman, and being black, and being African. Your location in the world also determines your relationship to privilege, to patriarchy, to white supremacy.”
Seoketsa draws inspiration from Renaissance-era visual iconography, and uses her work to interrogate the archive of classical art in relation to what was happening in South Africa in the same chronological period. “I always question, during the Renaissance, what was happening here? What were my people doing?” Her use of maize (mbona in Xhosa), she says, is a signifier for the politically contentious issue of land, land ownership, and femininity in relation to her position in South Africa as a young black woman. “I’m thinking of the reclaiming of land and the process of reclaiming autonomy and our bodies as black women, because women in general are not allowed to have ownership of their identity. We aren’t allowed to freely express ourselves sexually. You can’t express your identity in that way.”
There is a deeply current and considered methodology in Seoketsa’s textural conflation of the rich fertility of earth and land, and what it means to be a woman in a post-democratic South Africa. “It’s a discovery of myself in relation to the world,” she says. “I guess I feel that I’m not a single personality. I have two minds about things all the time. The story is always linked and I’ll have different ways to express it.” Seoketsa has been using the Covid-19 lockdown as a time to focus exclusively on her creative output and to refine some elements of her practice, while also branching out into new areas. “I’ve now picked up painting and I’m learning so much. I’d love to go back to school, to be honest.”
Seoketsa’s fresh and vital take on the issues that occupy our social consciousness and public debate is a rare glimpse into the mind of someone at the centre of it all. She is part of an emerging group of artists who are finding their way into South Africa’s art lexicon through means other than traditional art galleries. “I’m studying online. I’m picking up things from friends who are doing the same thing,” she says, listing Zanele Muholi and their recent work in KwaThema as a source of inspiration and activism. “It’s a time for reconstruction, and finding the artist within ourselves.”
• From the September issue of Wanted 2020.