Lust, desire, and fruit: Defying sexual politics in Johannesburg

Story highlights

  • Lady Skollie's watercolor paintings are often controversial
  • A new exhibition by the artist explores desire and abuse in South Africa

(CNN)Lady Skollie's reputation precedes the artist.

During our interview, her most overused phrase, "I'm not sure I should be saying this, but" could epitomize her outspoken views on politics, gender and more specifically sex.

Am I bovered? No. @mailandguardian

A photo posted by Lady Skollie (@ladyskollie) on

The South African artist is known for seductive watercolor paintings that reclaim her sexual experiences as 'a woman of color.'
    From papayas to bananas painted provocatively, art critics have stamped her works as 'an erotic jolt to the art world' to 'mildly offensive.'
    "I've always shared way too much," she says, rather understated. "I always found a lot of value in shock value and it's just about me now focusing that energy in a cleaner cut way so that I can actually make a difference."
    Born Laura Windvogel, the Johannesburg based 29-year-old tackles thorny issues around gender and sexual violence through art making - and previously - a sex talk radio show titled Kiss & Tell. Her first solo show in the UK has just opened in London, an exhibition on 'Lust Politics', it hopes to shock British sensibilities but also raise awareness.
    In "a country [South Africa] where HIV is rife, abuse is rife, teenage pregnancy is rife, and these are all things that are happening right now yet no one really feels open enough to talk about it, it always does my head in," she says.
    The goal is to spark crucial debates amongst men and women on taboo topics. "Sex positivity, body positivity for me, is a good channel with my art to address these issues."
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    She draws on South Africa's high levels of reported rape without convictions, in which current statistics show 142.2 sexual assaults occurring per day, and one in for four men admitting in a survey to having raped. "We've reached joke levels, like we're not even shocked anymore," says an emphatic Lady Skollie.
    In a bid to capture the darker side of raw sensuality, 'On the subject of consent' feature her trademark fruit motifs alongside title quotes "don't worry about it: around here red means go." While another work displays the Afrikaans term "Vroeg ryp, Vroeg vrot" - the sooner fruit ripens, the sooner it rots.
    "There's such deep trauma in this country especially with women and we don't know how to focus our energy," she adds. "We don't know how to focus our anger because no one is ever held accountable so I think that's kind of the things I'm trying to touch on."
    "On the subject of consent: 'Don't worry about it; around here RED MEANS GO!'" (2016), Lady Skollie.
    Her passion for arts began at an early age, initially mulling the idea of becoming an actress, before dropping a fine arts degree - hankering creative freedom - and eventually graduating in art history.
    "I didn't want to be a character. I think I'm far more interesting than whatever character you could make me play," she laughs.
    Stirred by the fantastical, she muses over works from Mary Sibande and Athi-Patra Ruga, known for his dystopian worlds featuring giant zebras and balloon-shaped women.
    "He's kind of my unofficial mentor," she continues. "I love everything that pops. I love color and being immersed into something." Ruga and Sibande delve into similar themes as Lady Skollie highlighting how fraught a topic, gender and race, continues to be within South Africa.
    Yet, broader influences are drawn from the personal. Using previous relationships as material she strives to inject vulnerability into stereotypes of a "hyper-sexualized" black woman.
    "I want them [audiences] to see a different version of southern Africa or a different version of a woman of color from South Africa than they thought possible or that they are used to," she says.
    For the artist, lust within a digitally connected era is multifaceted. "Whether it's about abuse, whether it's about porn stars ... colonization and how that's affected black women...
    I think all of those elements of sex are important and worth looking into." Her challenge now is to continue pushing the boundaries of political correctness.