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Karabo Mooki, Island Gals (2022)
Photography Karabo Mooki

Island Gals: vibrant photos of South Africa’s women skateboarders

Karabo Mooki’s portraits depict the all-women skateboard culture emerging in Johannesburg

South African-born photographer Karabo Mooki is electrified by the “high voltage atmosphere” in his hometown of Johannesburg. “The pulse of the city beats at a fast pace,” he tells Dazed. In opposition to what he describes as the country’s “tumultuous history of oppression and segregation”, the capital city is animated by a thriving, inclusive youth culture defined by a spirit of pride, originality and diversity. “Johannesburg’s youth culture is eternal,” Mooki explains. “The youth are fearless in their pursuits of claiming space and identity. The energy and inspiration that is distributed through the tiers of youth culture are constantly shifting and redefining what it means to be South African.”

Mooki explains to us how skateboarding forms a significant place in the city’s flourishing youth culture: “Skateboarding in Johannesburg, for the most part, is inclusive, it’s widespread and can be discovered from the townships to the suburbia, from the city to the coast. The youth that occupies the streets are making sure the legacy stays alive and is progressing.”

Over recent years, he also began to notice the ways in which skateboarding has increasingly acted as a potent conduit for social change and a means of resisting gender-based violence: “The right to occupy public space is not equally shared amongst genders. Women are often met with harassment, micro-aggressions, and many other unnecessary threats in public spaces.” Spearheaded by skateboarding luminaries Island Gals – a community and a movement embracing and amplifying the visibility of Africa’s female skateboarding scene, founded by Thato Moet – women are creating a new narrative around public space by actively organising and occupying areas of the city in which many women have previously felt uncomfortable.

Mooki began documenting their community. His series Island Girls collects together images of the individuals and groups of Johannesburg women skateboarders, portraying the style, unity, joy, and defiant spirit of this growing subculture. “I have a deep respect for the movement, inspiring young Black women to feel confident enough to take up space in skateboarding. Their passion for skateboarding and community transcends each individual, there is an undeniable sense of dedication to skateboarding among the female skateboarders that are committed to pushing for greater representation within skateboarding... Everyone has a story; those who are drawn to skateboarding tend to have a depth worth exploring.”

As it has grown in popularity, Mooki has witnessed the reach and scope of skateboarding becoming more encompassing and its appeal has become much more diverse. “In South Africa, due to access, cis white males had mostly populated skateboarding. But as the years went by and role models such as Wandile Msomi and Nhlanhla Ngubane inspired many young Black men to get involved in skateboarding. All the while, behind the projected portrayal of Johannesburg’s skateboarding identity, women from different generations in skateboarding such as Melissa Williams, Thato Moet, and Olympian skater Boipelo Awuah began trailblazing and shattering gender barriers within skateboarding locally.”

He continues to take pictures of the city’s women engaging in taking ownership of their environment on their skateboards, and his hope for this ongoing project is simple: “I’d love for the world to recognise the grace and dedication that these women are investing into skateboarding and beyond.”

take a look through the gallery above for a glimpse of Island Gals. 

Meanwhile, follow Karabo Mooki for more instalments of Island Gals and future projects