/ 10 March 2016

Lady Skollie takes the art world beyond the white cube

Lady Skollie is also known as Kaapstad Kanye.
Lady Skollie is also known as Kaapstad Kanye.

We arrive in Jeppestown to the frenetic backtrack of a primary school lunchbreak. The sounds of childhood freedom reverberate from a playground, as children cluster in their friendship squads.

Across the road from the source of these distant memories, Lady Skollie stands at the gate of her multicoloured house. Barefoot, she is dressed in V-neck printed dress, accented with exaggerated shoulders and a freshly cut chiskop. This is the place she now calls home, having recently moved from Cape Town.

Inside, the soundtrack shifts from youthful cries to Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late mixtape.

Lady Skollie – the artistic persona of Laura Windvogel – is hot right now. An artist of the Tumblr and Instagram generation, she is a symbol of an era in which we consume images as conversational shorthand. JPGs, GIFs and emojis are now stand-ins for words, which are being shafted from their communicative supremacy. With a bloggable street style, and consistently shifting barbershop fades, she represents a covetable aesthetic.

Her moniker is a reference to “small-time crooks”, the kind who “slices your bag open and takes your shit”, she says, not necessarily “something you should fear”. “Lady Skollie”, then, becomes a “juxtaposition” that she argues is about the interplay of “masculine and feminine energy”. Her brand, as an artist and personality, is her image, which she is acutely aware of. This becomes apparent when Oupa Nkosi photographs her.

She poses against shifting backdrops. Now a butt-print from her recent Hottentot $kollie exhibition, then a blue painting of a woman swallowed by blue water, surrounded by pills. The shoot, a performance of sorts, is staged on bed linen covered in her synonymous pussy print.

Her lane is erotically inspired art with a clear intention – questioning desire, gender, attraction, sexuality and sex, intimacy and consent. These threads run through everything she does, from her Kaapstad Kinsey – a zine that crowdsourced and detailed people’s sexual experiences, accompanied by her illustrations – to her Kiss and Tell podcast and body of work.

“Rihanna taught me to pose with my neck and jawline proper,” she says, referencing the Kween of Instagram. Like Riri, Lady Skollie knows all her angles, negotiating a subtle line between fierce, mischievous and come hither with calculated turns of her neck and shifts of her gaze.

There is a playful and determined back-and-forth between Oupa and Lady Skollie. They create a feedback loop, checking the images and collaborating over the artistic direction. The effect is of a woman in charge of her image and its dissemination.

“I’m sick of these people coming from outside and being, like, #BrownGirlMagic. Now you’re into Africa!” she pronounces. Details of a previous shoot follow, when the photographer kept seeking suggestive poses. These are the kinds of expectation placed on her: that her erotic art extends to an artist who is locked in erotica-as-identity. She tell stories about being approached by men wanting to “talk about art”, but it’s a pick-up line.

As the photoshoot finishes, the interview morphs into a hangout between two women whose racial background produces shared similarities.

We discuss how her work segues into sex education, a kind of duality that is unavoidable as part of working in the space of sex, sexuality, consent, “asking for what you want”, power and relationships. It is a tentative conversation; the line between interviewer and interviewee presents a boundary. 

She is visibly moved when speaking about it, particularly in daily engaging with sexual violence. Another line, between artist and activist, is blurry, and one she is still negotiating. Vulnerability seeps into our conversation, shattering previous borders between us.

This moment is underscored by the title of a show at the Stevenson Gallery that I read earlier. It could be her tagline. Her artistic statement. It reads The Only Reason I Predominantly Paint Papayas and Bananas is to Highlight the Fear I have inside relating to my Unrealistic Expectations of Sexual and Romantic Encounters between Men and Women.

Lady Skollie is constantly thinking about the effect of her work. She asks: “Is my work contributing to this kind of fucked-up shit as well?” Patriarchy. Misogyny. Objectification. She is figuring all of it out as she creates, while being emotionally invested in the answers to these questions. But it is not as black-and-white as choosing between being an artist or an activist, for Lady Skollie. She argues that to ask her to choose is unfair.

We move from the sittingroom to the bedroom, chatting like schoolkids. We browse Instagram. We check Youtube. “You have to watch this,” Windvogel states numerous times as we talk. Following that command, we flip through PBS Blank on Blank videos, featuring 2Pac and Grace Kelly, Sexpo videos and other digital reference points in the course of our conversation.

We have met before, when she was not Lady Skollie but was “the girl with the gorgeous curly hair at that shop in Cape Town”; the girl I sometimes chatted to when I browsed Long Streets boutiques. “I thought so,” she exclaims.

A few years ago, Windvogel possessed a covetable head of spiralled curls, coupled with a penchant for vintage clothes. “I own 118 dresses,” she confesses. Now with a clean-shaven head that is canvas for fierce barbershop artistry, and recently sported a dope Versace print, Lady Skollie is different – yet the same.

We were both different then, most clearly depicted by our altered hairstyles. I had long, constantly GHD’d strands. Now, we sit as two girls hanging out in a bedroom. Altered. Coloured girls who self-identify as black, yet also coloured, and know it is complicated.

The shift in her aesthetic is more an evolution than a change, with the alias enabling her art. “I just like having an alias,” she states. “And you feel like you can take more risks under a pseudonym … there is a psychology behind aliases, a kind of strength that they give you.”

I ask about the line between Laura and Lady Skollie, then say: “I’ve been thinking that I need to construct a bad bitch alias to become a bad bitch.” She responds with references to Amber Rose, as we map out a new wave in the feminist movement that goes beyond academia, and challenges respectable ideas of what women “should” be.

As the afternoon unfolds it becomes clear that Lady Skollie is the artwork. She is aware that everything she posts on social media is an extension of her art. From staged videos of her drinking from a cup with her “dick print” on it, alongside professional shoots and shots of her work, Instagram is her gallery. It is her escape from the “little white box” the art world prefers.

She thinks through what she posts, strategically considering how to push her career on the platform and not cheapen her work.

Knowing how to use this digital stage has contributed to her hot status in the fine art world she fiercely critiques, which fawns over her as she points out its flaws.

“The only art is making money,” she says with a grin, referencing Andy Warhol.

As an independent artist, she analyses the art world and traditional gallery space, drawing attention to power relationships and how removed and exclusive they can seem. The history of art graduate from the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art is constantly asking: “Who is it actually for?”

“Social media has been a massive pro for me,” she states. “That’s one of the reasons that I want to remain independent, because I am my own voice. It doesn’t make sense for me if I have to ask someone: ‘Is this okay if I do this?’ The time for representing yourself has never been this easy. It has never been this cheap and, fundamentally, in my opinion, the role of the gallery is going through a massive shift. It has to … we do not exist for your white cube.”

She heralds a new era, proclaiming that it is “time for a different kind of artist, who are not guardians of …”

“The galaxy,” I finish.

She continues: “If you do not exist in a digital arena as an artist, then I think you still subscribe to quite an old and archaic way of viewing art.”

The artworld is a space she loves to hate. “I have a coloured mother who has always felt uncomfortable to go into the white cube, who always feels alienated within the white cube …Those spaces, on purpose, are made to alienate people, so when people say ‘You are not cultured, you don’t know how to view art’ – that’s how they would prefer you. They would prefer you not engaging in the art world.” It is what she calls an “exclusive economy of art” catering to a generally older, white male audience.

“You remind me of Odd Future,” I carefully state. “Everyone’s always, like, ‘Oh my God, I love Odd Future. And you’re, like, ‘Who in Odd Future, do you like?’?”

“And then they don’t know,” she finishes.

“So you’re kind of like that in the art world,” I state, more boldly now.

“I’m the trendy choice,” she notes. “I wouldn’t call me a phase, because I’m definitely not a phase. I don’t limit myself to fine art. I know that I’m made for greater things than just doing pussy prints. Want to do art direction and more.”

What Lady Skollie wants is an empire of epic proportions. An Instagram post, inspired by a course she took at the UCT Graduate Business School, reads: “I want to create an empire for myself, incorporating my talent to throw parties, my sex radio show and semi-offensive watercolours and photography. Basically be the queen of a sex empire. And ethnic Larry Flint #MakeItSo.

“It’s reminiscent of Kanye West’s Donda – an ambitious multidisciplinary creative content creation company he formed that aims at empire creation.”

At some point I yell: “You are Kanye, it all makes sense.” Friends refer to her as Kaapstad Kanye. She speaks about his duality as a visionary artist who slut-shames women. “I love him,” Lady Skollie says, alongside “he is the king of the fuccbois”, “he slut-shames women” and “he is so clever”.

The comparison makes sense. “I’ve had this misguided sense of confidence my whole life. And it’s really blessed me. It’s protected me from a lot of stuff … it is over the top,” Windvogel acknowledges.

Competition does not bother her. Her confidence is the kind usually possessed by men who are not bothered by the constant demand to be “nice” lest you be branded an angry women, or its synonym, a feminist.

Her latest work is a meditation on power and women’s bodies that could be considered a feminist project. It premiered at Cape Town Art Fair’s Tomorrows/Today special project, titled CONSUMING US. Designated Hottentot Skollie, it is inspired by Sarah Baartman and the erasure of her history.

Author and academic Pumla Gqola writes of Baartman: “An enslaved Khoi woman; she was transported to Europe where she was displayed for the amusement, and later scientific inquisitiveness of various public and private collectives in London and Paris. Her paradoxical hypervisibility has meant that although volumes have been written about her, very little is recoverable from these records about her subjectivity.”

Lady Skollie’s work is another intervention to represent her in a way that affords her humanity – yet still acknowledges the impossibility of fully representing her. The work is personal, because it resonates a childhood nickname. The similarities in our stories intersect again. As children we were both called Saartjie, because of our big butts.

“I am Sarah Baartman, we are all Sarah Baartman, we just all pretend that we are not,” Lady Skollie states, relating this to the performance of sexuality “for men, even as we try to escape this”.

Her work is an evolution, but in her defined domain. It’s a historically located critique of “tits and ass”. It was created in collaboration with architect Ilse Wolfe, who designed the Sarah Baartman Centre of Remembrance in the Eastern Cape.

Lady Skollie discovered that the grave was vandalised last year. “Even in death they had to put the grave in a cage. So even in death, she is again … in a cage. Because people just used to come and throw paint into her cage.” Even in death, she is still spectacle.

“Our bodies are actually just …amazing, but so …”

“Vulnerable,” I offer. “Ja,” she affirms.

I leave with Windvogel hanging clothes – but first, a picture must be taken. For posterity. For Instagram. Obviously.

“What did we even talk about?” she asks.

“So much,” I answer. My head is spinning as ideas ricochet through it.

This was like the afternoons we relished as children, running to our friends’ houses and holing up in their bedrooms for hours. Four walls became spaces where we shared ideas, fears, frustrations and dreams. Spaces where we dreamt of empires. Now they seem possible and we seem a little more in control. We hope.