Lady Skollie’s expansive art

By challenging the exclusivity of patriarchal, white-walled gallery spaces, the artist who dares to represent the darkness in her community creates new spaces for art to flourish.

Like Cardi B, artist Lady Skollie is making money moves. Literally. 

The South African mint recently released the new R5 and R50 commemorative coins she designed celebrating 25 years of our constitutional democracy. The coins give every South African the opportunity to own a Lady Skollie artwork. As she pointed out on Instagram: “It is public art.”

Lady Skollie’s coin is a reminder that art is everywhere – not just inside the intimidating white walls of a gallery. 

Lady Skollie versus the art world

In Malibongwe Tyilo’s The Narrative video series, last year, the artist explained: “When I first moved to Joburg there was a Mail & Guardian poster that said, ‘Lady Skollie versus the art world’, and I think whenever I’m burnt out or sad or confused, it’s usually when I assume myself to be part of the art world. So I’ve now come to the decision that I’m not part of the art world, and that I do what I want. Because that’s when I’m happiest and that’s when the best work comes, and it’s when I don’t feel obligated to be a specific type of artist or say specific things”. 

Now she is represented by the Everard Read Gallery, but the words of the poster still resonate for the artist who roots her existence in lifelong resistance. 

In working within the gallery system, Lady Skollie speaks about remaining decisively independent, saying, “It’s nice to be with a gallery that doesn’t also restrain me.

“I’ve realised that I am the commodity, and no institution can sell art and not need an artist. So we need to also [have an] understanding that the role of the gallery is … fast changing.” 

The gallery helps facilitate her work and provides her with necessary resources, but she remarks, “you need to play the game and also stay true to yourself”.

Within and beyond galleries, Lady Skollie is creating an expansive space through her presence, politics and practice, as she continually critiques, challenges and opens up the elite and exclusive art world. 

As curator Same Mdluli says, “Black artists … did not have an opportunity to study in institutions, to study art. They did not have access to galleries to show their art.” Lady Skollie’s communal space-making is vital in this context in which black audiences and artists were historically prohibited from narrowly defined fine art spaces, even as our multidimensional art has always existed.

Importantly, Lady Skollie is not just asking how an expansive art space looks for herself, but creating it for many, through the challenging content of her work and the homes she builds for it – from painting a mural at So Dope Dance Academy in Eldorado Park to designing coins, and giving people multiple modes to own her work, including offering a lay-buy purchase option in the early stages of her career.

“It’s really important to me for people to have access to my work … I’ve always made arrangements and made plans for people to be able to get more access to the work,” she explains. This includes handing out flags bearing her signature “pussy print”, making tiny studies and posters of popular works. “There’s little pockets of access,” Lady Skollie says. “It’s not like they are actually worth a lot physically. It’s worth a lot for people in their hearts.”

Popular culture 

Lady Skollie trained at the Frank Joubert Art and Design Centre in Cape Town and the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School, but many art lovers found her work through the visual art mediums of our time: Instagram and Tumblr.

Speaking about our modern era in art history, Kimberly Drew, a “curator of black art and experiences” and founder of the popular Black Contemporary Art Tumblr explains, “Every generation has a moment where art and pop culture merge … I think we’re in one of those moments now, and I think it’s heightened to a new scale because of social media.” 

Lady Skollie’s work exists within this merged, sharply amplified context, in immediate conversation with our present. At the recent FNB Art Joburg, she showed a work depicting the scales of justice on fire, accompanied by the post office logo and the words, “The South African Government Hates Women”. This was displayed alongside a larger work that expanded on a previous theme, titled, Cut Cut, Kill Kill: A South African Love Story (Just A Few Small Nips), which continues her commentary on femicide and gender-based violence. Collectively, these works expressed many of our emotions, without feeling like they required an art history degree to read their meaning.  

2019: Lady Skollie’s Cut-Cut, Kill-Kill: A South African Love Story (Just A Few Small Nips)
2019: Lady Skollie’s Cut-Cut, Kill-Kill: A South African Love Story (Just A Few Small Nips)

Her art reveals the work popular culture can do in the world, approachably opening up ways to understand ourselves, interrogate who and where we are, and the history that brought us here. It exemplifies Mdluli’s belief that the gallery “has the power to shape how we see images and the narratives surrounding them”.

The world of good and evil

“Art is pain and art is showing vulnerability,” Lady Skollie says, “and I love money as much as the next person, even more, but don’t just make work to sell, because then your work will feel empty.”

Far from being empty, Lady Skollie’s posters, textual pieces, coins, flags, zines and paintings feel like “capacious art”, to loan a term from artist Gabrielle Goliath, who uses it to speak about expanding what is considered art to include “sound, touch, ritual, performance and more”. Goliath lyrically and critically explains that art can be “experienced in different ways” rather than only being seen through a “kind of cultivated ‘looking’’’ that requires a specific way of being in galleries.

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27 June 2019: Artist Lady Skollie at the Circa Gallery in Rosebank, where she exhibited her latest solo show, Good & Evil. (Photograph by Ihsaan Haffejee)
27 June 2019: Artist Lady Skollie at the Circa Gallery in Rosebank, where she exhibited her latest solo show, Good & Evil. (Photograph by Ihsaan Haffejee)

In Good & Evil, Lady Skollie’s most recent exhibition earlier this year, her vast visual capacity was palpable. “Good & Evil reimagines the history of people of ‘so-called coloured descent’, one in which they’re led to a promised land free of ignorance and self-hatred,” writes Zaza Hlalethwa, “The artist believes there is a need for this because their heritage was ‘nipped in the bud’.”

The 15 works appeared to contain the full scope of South African history, including pre-colonial times, slavery, colonialism, apartheid and the present all at once; questioning the reality of our inherited traumas and violence, in serious, playful, imaginative and humorous engagements. The artist repeatedly returns to themes, consistently probing the social violence of the dop system, in which people were paid in alcohol in what she terms “papsag propaganda”; the arrival of the Dutch East India Company in 1652; and the land question. Each work is a study of the reality of people the apartheid government classified as coloured and an engagement with our collective heritage. 

The artist explains, “It’s dark. It’s depressing, and I think that I have a gift in terms of showing dark, heavy, ugly, grotesque, horrible, horrendous things, in a way that draws people in, in terms of the colours and the techniques … and then when they get too close that shock of, Oh my gosh, it’s actually ugly, or actually it’s scary or terrifying, or what it represents makes me feel uncomfortable, so I think it’s all a trick. [It’s like those] flowers that get pollinated by flies, because it smells like rotting meat, but it’s pretty when you see it from far, that’s what my work is to me.”

Given their history, gallery spaces are often intimidating. Throughout the exhibition, the artist was often present in the gallery, facilitating walkabouts that talked through the tightly condensed politics of the work. There are works that act as a direct challenge to the elite gallery space, including an ode to The Cape Malay Cookbook by Faldela Williams and a Daily Sun poster that reads “14-year sex drought”. Their presence in the gallery insists on their artfulness. 

27 June 2019: Lady Skollie works to create vital spaces where art can be accessible beyond narrowly defined limits, especially for black audiences and artists, who were historically prohibited from some galleries. (Photograph by Ihsaan Haffejee)
27 June 2019: Lady Skollie works to create vital spaces where art can be accessible beyond narrowly defined limits, especially for black audiences and artists, who were historically prohibited from some galleries. (Photograph by Ihsaan Haffejee)

In her art, each of Lady Skollie’s brushstrokes acts as a doorway, as pieces rooted in experience and recognisable symbols adorn the walls. The work is layered in brightly coloured paint, where beauty, joy and cultural production exists alongside pain, oppression and multi-form violence. It is a reminder that we are capacious too. 

Seeing her new work, it becomes clear why Lady Skollie moved from London back to South Africa. “It was very important for me to show at home. It was important for me to have the people who inspired the work … access [it] …”

As she explained in a walkabout: “I knew that the work was heavy, but I also knew that a South African audience would understand it, and it wouldn’t feel heavy to them. They would understand the way colonisers used things like addiction and alcohol.”

Unresolved traumas

In conversation and on gallery walkabouts, Lady Skollie shifts between the terms “coloured” and “so-called coloured” when speaking about the community, indicating the continuing debates about the identity. 

“There’s a lot of unresolved trauma in South Africa, and I think in terms of colouredness, it’s probably the most, and that is very evident in how we perceive violence, how we perceive power, how we perceive anything really,” she says. She considers the often unspoken violence of the colonial encounter, saying: “Obviously we can’t look away from the fact that coloureds are heavily dowsed in the occurrence of rape, and we’ve never really spoken about it, resolved it, thought about it or asked for help about it … and it’s a thing that still plagues our townships. It plagues our communities. It plagues our families, and so naturally I started thinking more about how we were to be as a people.” 

In thinking about these origins, she explains, “This show to me is really about scratching that scab open, but also asking questions about the scab, and asking questions about why we tried to be so close to whiteness when we are something so much deeper than that.” She points to her works that explore the mysticism of our ancestors. 

While a consideration of the effects of oppression is visible in most works on the gallery walls, they also reclaim an existence beyond it. Two works, titled We have come to take you home: A tribute to Diana Ferrus, deal with the repatriation of Baartman’s remains, a reminder of her Hottentot Skollie exhibition. Standing in front of these works elicits the emotions Goliath speaks about: the impossibility of a cool world of removed observation. Rather, it connects us to history through the body and blood that appears in the colourful figures fetching a golden sun. 

The artist gets emotional when speaking about the responsibility she feels towards her community. “It’s our responsibility to give other people something to resolve, and I think that’s what my work is about. Any opportunity I can give my people to resolve things that have been plaguing them, the better.” She references the play Kanna Hy Kô Huistoe by Adam Small and “coloured” anger, while asking, “How can a community be that stunted in terms of, not even just doing something, but getting out?” Her words act as a verbal accompaniment to one of the works in Good & Evil titled, ’n Skaans Teen die Donker (Protection Against the Dark): I Collect Them All Together Under My Arms, Lifting Us All Up Together, Up and Away From the Past. In it, she depicts herself with long arms covering a community of many who are cocooned in her shelter.

2019: Lady Skollie’s ’N Skaans Teen Die Donker (Protection Against The Dark): I Collect Them All Together Under My Arms, Lifting Us All Up Together, Up And Away From The Past.
2019: Lady Skollie’s ’N Skaans Teen Die Donker (Protection Against The Dark): I Collect Them All Together Under My Arms, Lifting Us All Up Together, Up And Away From The Past.

The axis of space

In conversation with Janelle Monáe, curator Drew recently said: “It’s my biggest and grandest hope for the future of art that we really start to serve communities better – thinking more abundantly when we draw circles around community … When we’re thinking about accessibility with a capital A, we’re thinking about how abundant lives can be and how we can make spaces that can hold people better.”

Lady Skollie’s work is in service of this abundance, access and space-making. Gabrielle Goliath first introduced the idea of Lady Skollie’s presence and work in the art world as the politics and practice of making space. Goliath, whose remarkable body of work operates in a tender, care-filled and expansive artistic terrain, says: 

“Lady Skollie is without question one of the greatest painters we have, and have had, in this country. It is important for me to state this, plain and simple, because such accolades are preserved in general for white and almost always male artists – as they step into the canonical myth of artist as ‘genius’. ‘Are there any great women artists?’ (riffing Linda Nochlin)? Talented? Sure… Alternative? Definitely… But great? Not so much… And this why I say Lady Skollie is a great painter – and, yes, great in a way that blows open that white and phallic ivory tower.

“Is she joining the ranks of ‘the greats’ – Pierneef, Battiss, Hodgins, et al? Na, she’s making them sweat! As Lady Skollie, I see her performing this, not only in the paintings, drawings and prints she produces, but in the space she is carving out for them. This space is hers to claim, her greatness, and she’s opened it within this very policed and deeply patriarchal art environment. It is important – and due – that we acknowledge this performative labour, not as some fringe, brown, gender-bending spectacle, but as a radical shifting of the terms by which her work is encountered.”

Goliath’s words provide the frame through which to consider Lady Skollie’s work. Within her art world, space is more than the physical. It exists as an idea, decoloniality in political practice, as Lady Skollie creates an art space as a radically imagined and inclusive invitation. 

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