Monday, May 25, 2020

And yet I smile: Lebohang Motaung

 Lebohang Motaung
"And yet I smile" (2020)
Lebohang Motaung
"And yet I smile"
Acrylic painting on paper
100 x 70 cm
TLC Extension Collection (May 2020, South Africa)

Overview: A large portrait of a smiling girl, in a black and white striped tank top, her hair tied back in several places with white bows.  Wisps of hair extend outwards from the topnotes, almsot as if they are flying off. Around her smile is painted the outline in white of a protective face mask, allowing us still to see her entire face, including her smiling mouth.

Artist's Statement:  This pandemic has affected us all negatively, we found ourselves having to reimagine our livelihood. With all the hardships and new challenges this  pandemic brings, we continue to display resilience and a will to survive. There was a time when I used a mask to cover my sad face,  but now I’m hopeful and I can gladly say, behind that mask is a smile because I know things will get better.

In my work I used an outline of the mask instead of it covering the mouth, Because I did not want to hide the smile. Even  though I wear a mask, underneath that mask I still smile because I know this too shall pass.

Pamela Allara;  When she was a student at Vaal University of Technology, Lebohang Motaung would braid fellow students’ hair to earn money. She had always had a talent for braiding hair, and like the many women who braid hair for a living on the streets of Johannesburg, turned that talent into a means of earning income. In South Africa, as in many countries on the African continent, the styles of a black woman’s braids are a statement of identity, either of one’s heritage or one’s personal creativity. In 2018, after completing her certificate at Artist Proof Studio, Lebohang was granted a residency at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; currently, she has a residency at the Project Space as well as a studio in the Victoria Yards Artists Studio complex in Johannesburg. Although her professional success means that she no longer needs to braid hair for a living, braided hair has remained the subject of her art. Often, she combines drawings or prints depicting a woman’s hair with real hair, which she gathers from contiguous neighbors who cut and braid hair informally. The resulting installations transform the braids into sculptural artworks, permitting the viewer to recognize braiding as an art form. She as given a name to this body of work, Moriri, meaning hair in SeSotho.

“And yet I smile,” an acrylic painting on paper created for The Lockdown Collection Extension, depicts a smiling young woman whose hair, surprisingly, is not in braids, but in topknots secured with ribbons in tied in bows. These sprouts have so much energy that small knots are bursting from them: an indication the tremendous vitality of the young woman herself. This portrait is the embodiment of optimism and joie de vivre, and as such is a quite unexpected response to the pandemic. The outline of a mask is superimposed on her face, but it will not suppress her smile. As such, she is the personification of the resilience of the people of South Africa, or perhaps more specifically, of a younger generation who will survive and find a way to move past the pandemic’s hardship and loss. 

Mark Auslander:  Pam emphasizes the wonderful imagery of hair in this painting;  I find myself struck by Lebohang Motaung's evocation of the rich Basotho cultural aesthetics of the face, anchored in the female initiation process. Basotho female initiates at times cover their faces with woven reed masks, signifying their rebirth and intimate connection with the watery, reed-covered space of Creation  (Riep 2011). Young women emerging from initiation may adorn their faces and bodies with painted substances, known as letsoku, manifesting their transitional status as they move towards adulthood (Klopper & Nel 2002). White clays covering the face and body are at times associated with values of purity and rebirth, and the blessings of ancestral shades. The face, the outward expression of individual distinction and difference, thus becomes the appropriate medium through which the emerging young person is integrated into the continuity of the collective--which spans the interwoven community of the Living and the Dead.

Later during the life cycle, adult Basotho women engage in house painting, at times incorporating white clay pigments and imagery signaled in initiation, related to their roles as guardians of the domestic realm and bringers of life.   In other African rural communities, white lines and dots are used to beautify the face and signal new stages in social development and openness to the community.

Perhaps, in addition to referencing the now ubiquitous protective face masks worn during the Lockdown, the artist, recalling her own childhood and youth, may be reflecting on earlier, community-based processes of psychosocial transformation and symbolic rebirth.  The Lockdown here occasions a subtle kind of time travel, as the artist reflects on the various transitions and transformations that made her who she is and whom she might become: it is deeply moving to learn that at the foundation, she experiences this continuing process of concealment and revelation as one of joy.


Klopper, Sandra and Karel Nel. The Art of Southeast Africa from the Conru Collection. Milan: 5 Continents Editions srl., 2002.

Riep, David. 2011.  House of the Crocodile: south Sotho art and history in southern Africa. University of Iowa (Dissertation)

For more information:
#TLCExtensionCollection #ArtForGood #TheLockdownCollection

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