“Skateboarding feels a lot like therapy”: Karabo Mooki shares stories of South Africa’s all-female skate group, Island Gals

For his recent series, the Johannesburg-based photographer highlights the importance of building “relationships of trust” with the women he photographed.

12 May 2022

“Growing up as a young Black man that gravitated towards skateboarding and the culture it celebrates was not always easy for me to share with outsiders,” Karabo Mooki tells It’s Nice That. “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 dominantly white sport.” In spite of this reaction, Karabo continued to pursue his passion for skating, seeking out Black role models within the sport to look up to. When he discovered he had a knack for photography he soon realised that he could use this new found medium “to give people a soapbox to be heard, from all types of experiences that I gravitated to or grew from.”

Contemplating his own difficulties in finding his place in skate culture got him thinking about “what that experience would be like for Black women who are often boxed up by society's preconceived stereotypes”. It occurred to him that he might be able to use his creative practice as a tool to empower those women. So, he began hanging out with Island Gals, South Africa’s stereotype-defying all-female skate group. The collective, founded by Thato Moet, is a powerful force for change in the traditionally male-dominated skate culture of South Africa. By skating all over the urban cityscape of Johannesburg, they’re making a bold reclamation of spaces marked by “South Africa's tumultuous history with gender-based violence”, says Karabo. Totally inspired by their commitment to diversifying representation in skate culture, the photographer resolved to dedicate a photograph series to the group.

Karabo considers himself a “storyteller, not so much a content producer”. Building “relationships of trust” with the Island Gals became essential to communicating a narrative and uplifting the voices of the young skaters. This approach took various forms; for one, choosing analogue photography to document the series slowed down the process, making his image-making more “intentional”. This in turn made room for building more “valued connections” between photographer and subject. Another crucial part of his approach was documenting a series of conversations he had with the Island Gals, asking each of the women he photographed about their experiences of skating.


Karabo Mooki: Island Gals (Copyright © Karabo Mooki, 2022)

“Skateboarding feels a lot like therapy”, Naledi Ngwenya told Karabo. “There is so much to learn on a skateboard, learning through growing is a vital part for me, I am hungry to learn new tricks, and the process behind it all really drives me.” Meanwhile, Candice Nthabi said that she skates because she likes “proving people wrong”, adding, “I love dismantling any stereotypes that have been created around the idea that women are incapable of doing what men can do.”

Karabo’s careful attention to the individual stories of the Island Gals is one of the many things about the series which makes it stand out to us at It’s Nice That. The Candice who “loves proving people wrong” is captured perfectly in a close-up portrait of the skater (pictured below), the low angle of the shot giving weight to the rebellious, confident gaze with which she holds the viewer. Other portraits in the series show the Island Gals in parks, streets and back yards, all radiating a quiet confidence with their trusty skateboards by their sides, each representing a new space which the young skaters have re-appropriated for their own use.

“Their individual stories hold significant weight," concludes Karabo. "Their reasons for gravitating to a sport that hasn’t always embraced their presence shows an incredible resilience. Their existence and their voices matter and that has been a strong message that I have felt needs to be recognised beyond the world of skateboarding.”

GalleryKarabo Mooki: Island Gals (Copyright © Karabo Mooki, 2022)

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Karabo Mooki: Island Gals (Copyright © Karabo Mooki, 2022)

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About the Author

Elfie Thomas

Elfie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in November 2021 after finishing an art history degree at Sussex University. She is particularly interested in creative projects which shed light on histories that have been traditionally overlooked or misrepresented.

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