Written by Mamelodi Marakalala
“I love to tap into fantasy, to imagine a world where my culture was not nipped in the bud, but where it has been left to bloom,” Lady Skollie says. Her latest exhibition (now at the Standard Bank Art Gallery) Groot Gat, in reference to the Boesmansgat cave diving site in Danielskuil, Northern Cape, is a proud proclamation of her culture as she has experienced it and its heritage that has historically been swept away from critical archival points of this nation intended for mainstream cultural participation. She has built a world through her art that caters to the need to live through a time in which the indigenous South African Khoisan people are seen in the light of their whole culture, not simply from perspectives that are often founded in segments or distortions.
“The whole story is about the hole that is in the Northern Cape. It is a geographical landmark but I use it to talk about the tale of throwing yourself into a dark place. Then, you think it is all scary and that it might destroy you but you find out that the end of the hole is another parallel universe,” Lady Skollie says, referring to the artwork Bait Mirror (2023) – a depiction of red fish submerged in a body of water, at the bottom of which they inhabit a red sea as nothing but fossils. In this story, a fossil can become fished out into a state where it gains a full life and thrives. This reflects the state of her mind as it is occupied by thoughts of a renaissance.
In Tree of Life, Aflame (2023), Lady Skollie depicts a tree that has covered an entire space and is on fire. The branches and leaves appear to be at rest (not pointing to the sky). Not to say the tree is simply allowing the fire to consume it, but rather that the tree is learning to live with the fire. Fire is known to destroy all things in its path. However, the greenery of this tree reveals fire as being the light into a new way of feeling about things. As we often express, “burning with passion” and “burning for greatness”.
Lady Skollie has an understanding of holism – that things, people, and their cultures are parts of interactional space. The Rub Me Out paintings (2023) illustrate the phenomenon of the documentation of Khoisan Rock Art on specific land and then the erasure of those figures immediately after. What remains for future generations are documents and photographs, which naturally tell not even half of that history. These three paintings, each showing the rubbing out at different levels, can remind one of school trips, at which indigenous stories were not divulged to the fullest extent of their origins and nature. Do we really know South Africa as well as we think we do? So we should really be swimming inside of this hole, not only taking a peek inside of it. This whole body of work serves as inspiration to do so.
Dada Coex’ae Qgam, an artist whose talents have been classified as “extraordinary”, is a key figure in this exhibition. She is portrayed as sitting intimately in the comfort of her dwelling, engaged in painting, and the blue night sky filled with stars is seen through her window. She is painting what appears to be “the red people”, a phrase used to describe the Ncoakhoe people – her people. In her career, she was a founding member of the Kuru Art Project, she exhibited works in South Africa, Europe, Japan, and the USA, and she once designed British Airways’ first-class seats.
“I was always doing work with Joe Leshoka Legate of LL Editions; he would look at me and say everything about me is so similar to Dada. He had been her printing assistant, so he informed me that she was this real modern Bushman and a very interesting woman,” Lady Skollie says. She continues, “[Legate] gave me a book titled I Don’t Know Why I Was Created, which is a non-chronological biography of [Dada]. In the book, there is a picture of her sitting exactly like this, surrounded by half-cut Black Label cans that she used as containers for her paints. I painted her as if she is a cave-dwelling person who is the guardian of the hole”. The painting reflects the great power that Lady Skollie believes Dada holds, in the way Dada’s head is positioned to look up at the painting she is working on; crafting a universe of her own. There are tiny grey Khoisan figures at the back of her head, representing her leadership characteristics and deep care for her people and their heritage. She also has three arms in the painting, further accentuating the surrealism.
The right side of the exhibition leads to a cave. In it are projections of select artworks, and the depictions are moving in circular motion, or rather the figurations have come to life and are engaging in ceremonial dance. The lighting of the scenery makes the hole in this story is quite cosmological. Lady Skollie refers to the hole as endless. Yet, one cannot help but wonder what it will take for this void “with no end” to be filled, to satisfy the soul in its journey of discovery.
In her artistic intuition, Lady Skollie responds, “Having experiences and your own definition of yourself. Shifting away from categorisations and the anthropological way of seeing people. There is always an ambiguity in being Brown, and so you are put in positions where you either want to be white or you want to be Black but are not allowed [distinct, individualistic identities].
“It is important to define yourself before other people do. The hole is a vehicle for the uncomfortable; telling you it is okay to jump into this squashing, crushing vacuum that takes your breath away. You have to go through the scary, not-so-good parts to get to the fantastical place where you know who you are and where your lineage originates from.”
GROOT GAT opens on 5 October and will be up for anyone to enjoy and contemplate at the Standard Bank Gallery until 15 December 2023.
You can follow Lady Skollie on Instagram to engage more with her art and practice.