Karabo MOOKI's photo series documents the women of color pushing the new soul of skateboarding in South Africa

THE SKATEROOM has been sponsoring the work of social skate NGOs for nearly a decade, raising over $1.5-million in support for programs and facilities that inspire, educate and empower young people all over the world. Our longest-standing NGO partner, Skateistan, has been working in Johannesburg for over five years, and with our support has been combating gender and racial inequality in South Africa through skateboarding programs for boys and girls of all backgrounds.

But there is still a lot of work to be done, and the locals in Johannesburg know this above all: true change comes from the heart of the community. Recently, South African photographer Karabo MOOKI shared a new portrait series with us, documenting a new community of Black women who are using skateboarding as a tool for gender and racial empowerment. One of these women, Jeanne, it turns out, works at Skateistan in Johannesburg. Small world. Of course, we had to find out more.

Karabo, we’ve gotta’ know more about you. How did you become the incredible photographer you are today?

I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, in a city known for its contagious and chaotic energy. The pulse of the city allowed me to hone my senses, it heightened my curiosity for adventure. Accessing the heart of Johannesburg’s Central Business District on the weekends, when businesses would typically be closed, with a tight knit group of friends (on skateboards) shaped my journey. I met all sorts of city dwellers, artists, hustlers – a generation of people that would go on to define Johannesburg’s art and culture legacy. They still do, to this day.

How did skating Johannesburg shape your approach to life?

I found ways to connect to people and found a deep affection for wanting to document history – create visual recollections of a moment in time. I’ve always had a tenacious curiosity to see the full-span of influences in the world, which developed into a strong passion for exploring the depths of aesthetics and art. Through the experiences I had at home and while traveling, and through my love and proximity to skateboarding, I became obsessed with documenting and capturing snippets of seemingly mundane moments through the intimacy of photography. 

So there’s something significant about skateboarding that runs deeper than the mere physical act for you?

Skateboarding to me is about peeling away at the layers of society and building relationships. When you skate, you start to engage with more than what is on the surface.

black women skateboarding south africa

I suppose that also, literally, the act of skateboarding damages the surfaces of obstacles, revealing the creative power of that interaction. So, how does your ‘Island Gals’ photo project plan into this notion?

The focus of the ‘Island Gals’ story revolves around many themes: Black identity, equality in sport, representation and inclusion. In my pursuit to help lift the voices of young Black women in skateboarding, I’ve been spending time with people who are shifting the narrative of what it means to be a young Black woman in skateboarding. And the empowerment that brings. 

Of course, each individual woman in this series has a unique journey – but if you could describe the collective message, what would it be?

The women in this series are pushing towards a greater representation for Black women in the sport and culture of skateboarding. They are reclaiming the spaces they skate in and declaring their right to occupy spaces in protest to South Africa’s tumultuous history in regards to race and gender- based violence. But yes, everyone has a unique story; those who are drawn to skateboarding tend to have a depth worth exploring.

“Honestly, being a Black woman in South Africa is really difficult. Difficult in the sense that when you get into sport, you already feel oppressed, you’re made to believe that men are “better” than girls could ever be. I have made sacrifices for the art and the sport that I love – to give others the opportunity to learn and dive into a perspective they may be unaware of, and to create a change and conversation about societal issues.”
black women skateboarding south africa

And why did you decide to approach this community to create this series? 

I was inspired by the importance of representation. Growing up as a young Black man that gravitated to skateboarding and the culture it celebrates, it was not always easy for me to express my identity to outsiders. I was met with criticism from both Black and white people who believed that I was lost in my own identity, taking part in a white-dominated sport. I was fortunate enough to have some Black role models that I could look up to that made me feel less alone. I couldn’t fathom what that experience would be like for Black women who are often boxed up by society’s stereotypes of not just race, but gender too. I wanted to celebrate the beauty of this community and the boundaries that they are pushing.

South Africa has certain unique historical contexts when it comes to race and gender equality. Can you talk a little bit about that history in relation to ‘Island Gals’? 

South Africa has a tumultuous history with gender-based violence; the right to occupy public space is not equally shared amongst genders. Women are often met with harassment, microaggressions and many other unnecessary threats in public spaces. The ‘Island Gals’ are changing the narrative by actively organizing and occupying spaces that many have previously felt uncomfortable being in. Spaces that become known thanks to their presence, and embraced by like minded communities. Thato Moet, the driving force behind Island Gals, has been pushing for greater representation for women in skateboarding in Africa. The movement she has been leading is inspiring young Black women to feel confident about being a force in skateboarding.

black women skateboarding south africa

Do you see skateboarding becoming less white/male-dominated?

I became aware of the increasing presence of women in skateboarding in South Africa after meeting Thato Moet in Johannesburg. Skateboarding isn’t always embraced by Black communities and through my own experiences, I’ve felt a limited proximity to Black role models in skateboarding. But I did have some. This led me to wonder what it might be like for Thato and other Black girls who do not have Black icons in skateboarding, like Beatrice Domond or Samarria Brevard, nearby. I wanted to discover what attracted these young women to persevere and continue to be inspired in skateboarding in spite of that.

And what did you discover? 

One of the most interesting stories Island Gals shared with me was during a meeting with Thato in the inner city of Johannesburg. We cruised some of the streets looking for some interesting sights and I quickly realized how different a young Black woman on a skateboard has to interact with the city, as opposed to somebody like myself. The amount of microaggressions that I witnessed only scratched the surface when I think about the daily experiences of women in Africa. Thato shared this with me when I asked her what skating is like for her as a Black woman in Africa.