#Transformers: Reinventing the creative self with Lebz Skywalker
by Charlie Mathews (@CharlesLeeZA) What makes an entrepreneur? The very definition of what it means to work for yourself is being transformed during covid-19, a time when retrenchments and reformation are sweeping through the creative sector. MarkLives chats to multimedia artist, Lebogang Tshetlo (@lebzskywalker), about his multiple transformations, and how he’s transmuted personal pain to find a new sense of self.
“Transformers Transform 2020” is a special series produced by MarkLives and HumanInsight and sponsored by the Association for Communication and Advertising (ACA), running Jun–Sep 2020. Together with Lebogang Tshetlo, we’ll be profiling remarkable local #Transformers every other Friday until September, featuring Tshetlo’s photography. The objective of this an independently managed, journalism-driven research project is to explore and map new paths for brands and marketers to transform, adapt and build resilience while the world adapts to covid-19 and its resultant social, political and economic toll.
Tshetlo (IG: @lebzskywalker) is a poet, artist, professional photographer and seasoned transmedia storyteller and researcher. A creative who has worked in advertising, content and publishing, he now uses photography for art and work alike, and researches transformation and innovation. In this interview, he speaks to transforming identity so that it inspires work and continual reinvention to find meaning, and forge a multifacetted career, in an industry that is changing fast.
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My name is Charles Mathews and I’m here today with Lebogang Tshetlo AKA Lebz Skywalker. Lebz is a transformer who has been in the ad agency world; he has worked at the Content Bar; was the editor of SowetanLive, which was pretty much a one-person show. There he did editorial photography, got the whole thing up and running and successful, and then, more recently, Lebz had a major transformation. He decided he was going to become a full-time photographer. Welcome, Lebz. Tell us, who is Lebo?
Lebogang Tshetlo: I think that intro basically introduced me very well: Lebogang Tshetlo, photographer, multimedia artist, and overall transformative being. In a way, I think I’ve always encapsulated that in everything that I do and I’ve changed aliases so many times now. When I started out in high school, when I was writing poetry, I was called Verbal and then, when I finished matri, and I started performing on stage, I went by the name Unorthodox and, when I finally came to being and after Idea Engineers, which was the big break into adulthood — and working in a corporate environment — at that time I started looking inwards, and Lebz Skywalker was born. So, when I moved to Content Bar, and started working there, the photography, and the art, and the poetry started colliding a lot. For the past almost two decades, I’ve been battling with this, but now I can finally stand on a title and just call myself a multimedia artist.
How do you make sense of your world? Because not only have you had many transformations, you’ve also had to deal with tragedy. Perhaps the biggest tragedy has been the loss of your father, who was an amazing artist. Can you tell us about your father?
LT: Oh, my dad, an amazing human being, came into my life very late into my teens. I met him around when I was 18 years old. It changed everything. Before I knew him, I was always the black sheep of the family. My family is filled with engineers and electrical engineers and, coming from Springs, in KwaThema, engineering was the thing to do in a mining town, but I have always had an itch to scratch, to sketch, to perform. The performing arts have always been there. You know what I mean? The visual artist has always been there, but it’s like it didn’t feel right because of where I was but, when I finally met him, it made sense. It clicked, that “Oh, this is where it comes from!” I’m not such a black sheep, after all; I inherited what was right with me, through him. And we fought a lot about the artist in me — he just didn’t want me to become an artist. I remember one conversation I had with him and he told me that he doesn’t like the ‘struggling artist’ persona or idea and he doesn’t want that for his son, and I had to fight him back and be like, “But this is who I am. This is who I’ve always been, before you, before I met you, so I can’t just back away from it.”
— Lebzskywalker (@lebzskywalker) June 27, 2019
And ironically, when he passed away, that had to take a backburner. I just couldn’t sketch; I couldn’t paint; I couldn’t perform. I couldn’t… Everything just reminded me of the loss, when it came to the visual artist. And, up until recently, when I met the love of my life and everything came together from love. Literally, like love freed me, freed the artist, freed the photographer, freed Lebo. You know, I could finally call myself Lebogang Tshetlo without having an identity crisis because I didn’t belong to the club, because my dad didn’t marry my mother and I couldn’t call myself Tshetlo because it’s my mother’s surname, but now it’s come full circle. Through love I’ve found who I am, and it’s a beautiful space to be in.
So, there’s a guy called Dave Duarte, whom I admire, and I went to ask him what story I,? And he said to me that story is the struggle to resolution. As I speak to you, I can hear you are, at times, thick with emotion. In your story, that transformation is painful and it’s hard and it’s challenging to become another person, to leave what you know. Like an editor. Photography is hard. You’ve got to start the hustle from the beginning. Then tell me about some of the rewards
LT: I’ll start from childhood with the hard stuff, and something that I feel deserves a separate platform, which I’m working on. Coming from an abusive childhood and coming into my teenage years, I was very isolated, because for the longest time you think that it’s your fault being abused. It’s what you did; you carry that as a child into your childhood. One of the biggest hardships. And then finding poetry was another hardship, whereby you come into being, you start writing because you’re venting for yourself and now you have to have a struggle where you have to perform it. Or you have to share it with the world. Sharing pain, if you like, it’s one of the hardest things to adjust to. And once you adjust to it, you have to sort of find a balance where you’re not sharing pain all the time and then it looks like you’re just gloomy. I remember during my performing years, spoken word, there’s a few places that actually banned me because they said my work was too dark all the time. And I remember telling one of the venue owners that I can’t speak, I can’t perform, I can’t write about love when I’ve never felt it. I write from what I know, from my surroundings; until I feel it, I can’t talk about it. It’s not actually like being an artist, when you can’t draw from your environment, when you have to lie about things that you know nothing about. It borders on science fiction. [laughter]
That was the hardship through my teen years, and then meeting my father was another hardship where I had to, now, be at peace with who I’ve always been, when I’ve been trying to hide that person and I’ve been trying to run away from that person. The artist, the abused kid that I found, knew I had to adjust to, to be this new person and accept who I am, and have a transformation. And then, while I was tackling having a father in my life, which came with its own hardship. Because we didn’t know each other, we had to learn each other, and there was a new kid coming, my brother from my father’s side; that’s another hardship. And then he passed away. Just as we were moulding this thing that we could call a relationship, and that came with — I feel like that’s one of the most-daring and the most-painful things I’ve had to deal with, because all my life I didn’t belong and now when I found somebody that I felt like made me belong and feel like I have a place on this rock, it was taken away.
And between 2003 and 2010 or 2011, my world just crumbled. I was this angry person. I just felt like the world didn’t do me right. You know, why can’t I find happiness? Why can’t I be…? Why can’t I? Why can’t I? You know what I mean. It was all those things and it made me angry all the time. I only realise now in my 30s that I was an angry teen and that’s why, most of the time, I couldn’t connect with anybody fully. And then relationships. I went through a relationship that I felt like I belonged, but that relationship was just me trying to belong. Another hardship. Then finally meeting the love of my life, readjusting again. It’s like transformation is just — just imagine being a worm, right, or in a cocoon, and then you have to transform into something that’s this big butterfly. You have to shed your skin. I can only imagine how painful that is. Can you imagine? A pain from a little cut; now you have to shed your whole skin and you have to become this whole person.
That little soul that was tormented, that I was and now I had to come into being; I had to be this person that is transformed from love which is painful. I think that was the biggest transformation for me. When I found out that I actually deserve happiness, I deserve love. I deserve everything that I desire. That transformation was the transformation for me because, with that transformation, I could break walls. And, from what you were saying, the question was, the hardships, and the fruits, and the rewards. That was the reward for me, finding love, finding my place in this world. Being at peace with who I am, having somebody love me that way so that I can love myself that way.
What I notice about your work, and as you’re speaking, I’m thinking about your work — and I consume a lot of your work, because I love your work — is that your work has such depth in range. That, in your work, you go to places of extreme ‘grimdark’. I see the photography — one feels such emotion — but then the other part of your work that you capture [are] moments of extreme happiness, moments of birth, and you have pictures of Sho Madjozi performing on stage, which are you catching ecstasy in a way; what really astounds me about your visual work is the huge depth and range. You talk about this hugeness of being — I get a sense that is really catalysed in your work and your art.
LT: Yeah. It’s the duality of everything that inspires most of my artwork, whether it be through the lens, or through a pen, or through a brush. Everything has its opposite. So, night and day, pain and joy. And having these superpowers that is poetry, that is photography, that is art. I feel like I have, sort of, a three-dimensional medium that I can portray the duality in its fullest. I think that’s why I’ve never been able — for example, in photography, most photographers would like to specialise in one field of photography, whether that be wedding, or portraits, whether it be landscape, or whatever — I’ve never been able to stay in one sphere. Because I feel like I have to represent my life. I’ve always drawn from my life; I’ve always been drawn from what I see; I’ve always drawn from emotion and it has to show in the work. Whether it be poetry, whether it be photography, whether it be whatever I’m doing, and it’s just capturing lives in its fullest. Whether it’s dark, whether it’s bright, whether it’s in between — sometimes it is when you feel jubilation and pain at the same time. It’s life.
— Lebzskywalker (@lebzskywalker) May 12, 2020
You’re telling a new kind of story, which I’m loving, and I’m thinking you have a kind of science-fiction edge, because you play with science fiction and you play with an ‘afro-future’, which is very much science and science fiction and you’re melding new looks of Joburg with machines in the background that are futuristic and photographing men in space suits on this kind of volcanic edge, and it looks like a whole new world. Where does that come from?
LT: Science fiction has always been my main escape. I remember it from a young age: I used to just watch everything sci-fi, whether these were cartoons or Star Wars; whether it be whatever I like, it felt like I could take myself to another world. I could leave the pain; I could leave the worries; I could do whatever. I could be happy there. I could be a superhero. There I could be the most-powerful man on earth. There I could be the happiest. So, when it came full circle, when I had to come to terms with who I am through love, that got melded into my sci-fi. I’m a cyberpunk fan in every way. Because science fiction has always looked at movies like it’s in the US, it’s in Europe or whatever, but we’ve never looked at Africa or South Africa in a scientific dystopia or futuristic dystopia. And that’s when “Mzansi 3000” was born. What will Joburg be like in the year 3000; what will Soweto be like; what kind of people would be living there, with the climate? There’s a photo that I have, a composition that I did of Joburg overtaken by huge storms. It’s basically in a desert, scorched earth — what if climate change really gets that drastic and Joburg is surrounded by desert? What will it be? How will people live?
What is the pantsula in the year 3000, the street hawker on every corner of Soweto — what will they be like? Will they have a cybernetic arm? Will they be using technology to sell these foods; will they be using hover cars, whatever? The future is so multidimensional and so freeing, that my work tends to go towards it, always tends to lean or gravitate towards it. Because the now, you can react to the now but you can also almost mould the future.
The future belongs to those who build it and I think you’re building the future. I think a really important part of identity is imagining ourselves in the future.
LT: I fully agree with that. Because, look, again it’s the duality. You can’t have a future without acknowledging your past. You can’t have a future without working, without building it now. There’s always a duality in everything that you do but the future is the one presence that we can actually look on and find hope. Whenever I have a bad day, I always look at tonight, what am I going to be doing? At the end of this day, I’m going to be with my lady and that makes me happy. If we’re having a bad day, what is going to be tomorrow? Tomorrow we can change it. So, tomorrow always gives me an excuse to look beyond the pain, to look beyond the hardship, to look beyond the struggles of the hustle. It’s an interesting, but very energising feeling and concept to just work towards the future.
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As an entrepreneur, Charlie Mathews (@CharlesLeeZA) has worked in growth teams with Naspers, Microsoft, and Tutuka.com (the global prepaid card company). Mathews has also successfully founded and exited two marketing companies. Published in Rolling Stone magazine, Guardian UK, and SA’s Greatest Entrepreneurs, edited by Moky Makura, Mathews wrote for Daily Maverick during the title’s legendary startup era. Today, Mathews is the founder and CEO of HumanInsight, a research, insights and learning company that helps brands better understand, and serve — humans.