Stepping outside of your building as a woman in the bustling city of Johannesburg, and quite frankly the many parts of South Africa, means that you will have encounters that attempt to socialise you into paradigms that take full advantage of the social systems set in place that draw from the bubble of your identity to flourish. If you are a woman, that can mean experiencing catcalling and other forms of objectification. If you are a man, well…
The art practice of Lebogang Mogul Mabusela, known as Monotypebabe in the art scene, is based on the various daily experiences of South African Black women in the streets when they leave their homes to go to their places of work, shopping, or to engage in activities of leisure. Through her Johannesburg Words body of work, she encourages a shift from making these encounters about women by inviting the audience to turn their gaze towards the men who are the source of women’s discomfort and trauma.
Monotypebabe’s practice is divergent, enriched by her ability to flow where her creativity and capacity take her, and to adapt to the current social waves and structures that call on her to say something.
MAMELODI MARAKALALA: Tell me a little bit about your art practice. How did you become an artist and where is your art practice at the moment? What are some of the processes of making that you have adopted as your own, that now feel simply natural to you?
MONOTYPEBABE: I have been practicing art since around 2017, 2018, while I was still at The Wits School of Arts.
My art practice has many projects, processes, and methodologies ranging from mixed media, painting, zine making, printmaking, and drawing. Some bodies of works and projects are unique and totally my own, some are taken from and inspired by other artists, and some are new inventions. Some have been finished and gone on to be circulated in the art market and featured in exhibitions, while others are under my bed or wardrobe, in boxes that I open now and then.
I would say the use of text is something that I have adopted as my own. Being a monotype babe and printmaking princess is me making monotypes my thing and taking this mode of making as my primary art medium.
MAMELODI MARAKALALA: You are mostly known for painting street portraiture of men and how they engage with femininity in public spaces. What is the culture you have created in your work in addressing this particular social dynamic?
MONOTYPEBABE: The work is called Johannesburg Words and has taken form in various iterations and different mediums, from watercolour monotypes to oil pastel drawings.
The watercolour monotypes are small-scale and intimate, depicting two figures: the man catcalling and the woman’s uncomfortable response in her encounter with the unfamiliar man, while the text, which is a catcalling word or phrase, is sprawled at the bottom in uppercase letters.
The work has since developed further. I started doing oil pastel drawings of headshots with the catcalls being on the gold chains around the men’s necks. In these works, the text is backwards to create a mirror image. This shift was to create a more rigorous critique of street harassment. A visual statement that does not just illustrate what women are going through but also shows what men are doing.
MAMELODI MARAKALALA: Words have so much power in shaping our culture and society, especially the behaviours of people and their perceptions of others. Tell me more about your encounters with words, especially the catcalls in your art. How have they shaped your behaviour and perception and how do they continue to inspire you as an artist?
MONOTYPEBABE: My first solo exhibition was titled Ukwatile? This word translates to “Are you mad?” or “Are you angry?” It is often directed to women because we are expected to always have a big smile on our faces for no apparent reason. Angry, mad, intimidating, or unapproachable are the words used to placate women, usually when they are assertive or protective of themselves in ways that society then deems as manly or masculine.
Words can get weaponised. I believe that new words are important because they allow you to give a name to something. Words are also aesthetic, whether in text form or spoken.
One artist whose work is similar to mine is Brooklyn-based Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. For example, she dabbles in street art and her series Stop Telling Women To Smile was informed by her experiences with street harassment.
I have felt shamed, insecure and unsafe by words. Imagine going to buy veggies and while you are picking up potatoes, a man calls you “pakistani”, “beyontse”, “afro”, or “black beauty”, and people think it is a compliment. Misogynoir is real and it causes a lot of pain and turmoil.
Walking in Jozi CBD and hearing a few, and I mean probably three times a day, of these catcalls: “my size” or “shambula”. Being objectified every day can affect the outfit you choose on a different day, the thought behind spending money on an Uber instead of just walking, the act of wearing earphones while walking to block everything out, and best of all, I made work about it.
Some people play devil’s advocate and say I will miss the male attention one day when I am older. Hopefully, I can get so much money from selling my works that I can buy land and cars, travel, pay school fees, buy books and get degrees, and buy art. So that one day, when I am 68, I can sit and laugh about how speaking out on male attention and critiquing voyeurism buttered my bread.
Since doing Johannesburg Words and using text in my work, I have been reading books; a lot of fiction and some biographies. It fosters a lot of empathy, which has made me even more obsessed with reading. Reading as an adult is hard, but now I find it effortless to pick up a book and be immersed in it.
MAMELODI MARAKALALA: At the Latitudes Art Fair in 2023, I was mesmerised by your paintings depicting doilies – A Dedicated Coldness and A Dedicated Warmness. I haven’t seen that kind of style again since, do you still make work like that or are you going to at some point?
MONOTYPEBABE: I call the works Killjoy Doilies. They are watercolour monotype prints. I buy those gold and silver doilies that are mass-produced and disposable, that you can find at the oriental plaza. I cut the doilies up into smaller pieces and rearranged them to disrupt the clean pattern and design of the doily and use bright colours and watery gestures.
There are rules imposed on women on how they should be, behave, and look. We are often delegated to domestic servitude. These works are meant to critique that and rebuild those doilies that are different and rebellious.
The works were printed at the Eleven Editions print studio.
I have also made a painting practice out of these works, too. You can find some of them on the Art Gazette website.
Some of the portraits have details of the doily art. It is intentional for me to use paper from older prints, which some might refer to as the failed art. To me, these little details are additional elements behind some of the portraits that highlight the depths and layers of the issues I address.
MAMELODI MARAKALALA: One might say there is a contrast between the doily paintings and the male portraits. There is a sense of homeness and inwardness in one set and there is a strong masculine energy and a dreaded outsideness or otherness in the other body of work. What do you say about this contract? What is the meaning of jumping between these two imageries?
MONOTYPEBABE: We are taught that as artists we should have some sort of consistent language or aesthetic. I don’t want that! I am unable to do that because I have a lot of things to express.
I am currently drawing cars for my next exhibition. I could decide to paint a bunch of fish next year. I go where my creativity and availability or where the resources and opportunities take me.
I love all the projects I do, but sometimes I prioritise what is necessary now, what is done now, what people will like and want to buy, and what I want people to see or hear from me.
The work with doilies began in 2018. They have had their time for that year and because I had access to a print studio where I had the luxury to make big work and the doilies required that.
When I made Johannesburg Words, it was after I acquired a small printing press and minimalistic and easy-to-sustain materials and resources. It made sense to make new work with a new aesthetic because it did not look good for the doilies to be small.
The work is about gender experiences and has feminist themes. In the works depicting men, I try to tackle patriarchy by giving it a face and being confrontational. The doilies are quite abstract and overturn notions of what femininity and Black womanhood should look like.
MAMELODI MARAKALALA: What has been the most interesting or unforgettable encounter you have had being outside?
MONOTYPEBABE: Pretty much the catcalling. One time I was doing an all-nighter over the weekend at the Bag Factory. On Sunday morning, I retired and started to walk home. While crossing the street, a taxi driver stopped dead in the middle of the road, with a stack of money in his hand because he was counting the load, and said, “Eh my size!”
What I have come to understand about the interactional dynamics between men and women in our shared public spaces is that femininity is exploited by the male gaze.
MAMELODI MARAKALALA: Outside of making art, you have a curatorial and collaborative initiative going on. Please shine some light on the work you do in that context.
MONOTYPEBABE: The Monotypebabe Curatorial is a printmaking initiative that I started in late 2020 at the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios in Johannesburg.
The space is artist-run, open for collaborative monotype workshops, and only prints work smaller than A4.
Artists are invited to work with the Monotypebabe Curatorial in creating monotypes by innovatively responding to the parameters of artworks being below A4 in size and to an imposed theme that is either given or just exists within the artist’s practice. That year, when I started, I did three group shows, including at The Turbine Art Fair.
After that, I did not have a studio anymore. I work from home in Pretoria so the programme has been halted until I can get a space.
MAMELODI MARAKALALA: What were the highlights of your career in 2023 and what are you excited about for this upcoming year?
MONOTYPEBABE: In 2023, I was shortlisted for the Latitudes x ANNA Award. Out of 708 entries from 28 African countries, I was among the Top 12 finalists.
Later on in the year, I found out that I was shortlisted for the Norval Sovereign African Art Prize. The work I have on for the NSAAP is titled Johannesburg Words, Vol. 2 and it is an installation of sixteen small watercolour monotypes. For a long time since doing Johannesburg Words, it has always been a goal of mine to present the works in an installation format – a big grid that fills up a wall. To emphasise volume and repetition, and the recurrent violence happening to women in South Africa. So, I am looking forward to making that.
Also, I have started making newsletters to connect with my patrons directly, beyond posting on Instagram. Everyone is welcome to subscribe at this link for all the latest updates on my art practice.