STEVENSON is pleased to present Ukwatile? by Lebogang Mogul Mabusela. This is the third exhibition in our STAGE series, a platform for younger, unrepresented artists, and the first to take place in Johannesburg.
Mabusela’s practice reflects on ‘the reality of navigating within misogynoir’. Comprising prints, drawings and sculptures, Ukwatile? brings together works from her ongoing series Johannesburg Words (2021–) and Makoti: A bridal gifts shop (2017–). Together, these foreground the necessity of humour in extracting the constant threat of violence from its absurd mundanity.
Utlhalaphi?, the first image in Johannesburg Words, was inspired by a 1987 etching by Robert Hodgins titled Jo’burg Words. Hodgins’ storyboard-like print sparked Mabusela’s body of work about language, catcalling and voyeurism, ‘subverting the male gaze, interrogating male desire, and showing how dangerous it can be’. The artist explains that she chose a comic approach ‘to reflect on how this is not taken seriously’. Beyond the mockery of jest, her levity critiques a society which limits its understanding of the experience of Black womanhood to one of struggle and lamentation, devoid of joy and laughter. In specifically recalling the work of a notable artist, Mabusela references a lineage of protest, remarking:
What I like about Robert Hodgins is the fact that he’s critiquing imperialism in these rich, fat cats. It shows that calling things out is not only part of a Black woman’s identity. White men also complain about shit all the fucking time. Ya, I make angry work but I’m not the only angry person.
Mabusela plays with vernacular phonetics to bring into focus how the streets of Johannesburg become a school of cultures: familiar oral encounters with unfamiliar men bridging structures of power over winding roads intersecting at collective sites of vulnerability. Early prints foreground the speakers’ words like speech bubbles, depicting their shamelessness and open acceptance. More recent portraits have words scrawled across the bottom or featured on gold chains, offering reminders that this form of violence is a timeless fashion, made insidious by how ubiquity lends it subtlety. Mabusela says:
I decided to keep [the oil pastel portraits] backwards like a mirror because another thing I grapple with is that for us – people who go through this – we understand what’s happening. We can laugh because we understand the seriousness. But do they see that I’m critiquing them? Are they just also going to laugh and walk past it? The mirroring gesture calls for that introspection.
Through her paper and lace sculptures, Mabusela teases out how this absence of accountability produces the need for women to take responsibility for their own safety. Makoti: A bridal gifts shop offers ‘a dynamic range of guns, tools and technologies that enhance women’s desires and roast the patriarchy’. Each gun in Cutlery, the new collection of wares on show, is accompanied by a user manual which clearly states: ‘WARNING! Our products have a tendency to cause irritation to people who like their women nice. If irritation occurs, plz cuntinue.’
Ukwatile? transforms a common refrain – used to patronize and placate – into a collective reflection, a reclamation, a readying, with nods to Sara Ahmed’s notion of the ‘feminist killjoy’ and Ama Ata Aidoo’s 1977 novel Our Sister Killjoy.
Lebogang Mogul Mabusela was born in Mabopane in 1996 and lives in Johannesburg. In 2019 she graduated with a BA in Fine Arts from the Wits School of Arts, where she was awarded the Standard Bank Fine Arts Prize. Currently she runs a printmaking curatorial scheme called The Monotypebabe Curatorial.
The exhibition opens Saturday 9 July, 10am to 1pm.