Self taught photographer and fashion student Azania Forest, real name Lesego Seoketsa has been paying homage to her culture through art direction and style, from her "Mbona Lisa" photo series to wearing traditional Xhosa attire known as "umbaco" at Afropunk festival. Here she shares her views on the importance of culture to South African youth, what it means to be her most authentic self and more.
Please tell us about "Mbona Lisa" and how the aesthetic of that shoot came about?
Mbona Lisa, the title of my photo series, is inspired by Mona Lisa, a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci. I just changed "Mona" to "Mbona" which means maize in Xhosa. I am embodying the beauty of our land and its fertility (a feminine attribute). Mbona Lisa is about land ownership and wealth that comes from the earth. Monetary value and value from nature are two different things to me. Mbona Lisa is open to translation, some have chuckled at the title saying it is ridiculous and some think it is ingenious.
Why did you choose to dress in Xhosa attire at the recently held Afropunk festival?
Because it is the culture I know best. I grew up with a heavy Xhosa influence, I used to go to Eastern Cape frequently during the June and December holidays in my childhood, so the Xhosa attire was me reflecting a culture that is a part of my identity.
Tell us about your cultural heritage
My dad is Tswana and my mom is Xhosa, I speak both languages but I am more exposed to the Xhosa culture through traditional ceremonies and weddings. My dad's side is more urban, so I don't have a strong connection to the Tswana culture, however I do have a connection with my Tswana relatives. I recently learned that my mother has Khoi ancestry, and my great-grandmother from my father's side is Pedi. I have come to accept that I am a mixture of all the beautiful tribes and I don't identify myself as belonging to one culture even though I was more exposed to my maternal Xhosa side.
Do you think it is important to preserve one's culture and if so, why?
Definitely! It's important for us to preserve our customs and beliefs because they have lead our ancestors and they can still lead us today, I just have a problem with culture being rigid. Although we should preserve our cultures, times change and we need to progress in behaviour and thinking. People make culture, and people can change culture when it is necessary to do so. You shouldn't be dominated by cultural beliefs that your fore-fathers held on to if they hurt you today. As much as we should preserve culture we should also be willing to progress.
Do you think the youth in South Africa are still connected to their cultures or are the youth more inclined towards creating new identities?
Western influence is heavy in South Africa, people in rural areas want to move to urban areas and this will cause their cultures to be integrated with western ideals. I don't think that the youth in South Africa are connected to their cultures because of urbanization, I do believe though that some are still raised culturally, but what I've noticed is that the South African youth are not disconnected to their cultures from their own choice (indigenous environments are very scarce these days) they are not exposed to their cultural rituals and most do not live on the land of their ancestors. I think that a lot of us are in search of our origins and cultures, a lot of us are trying to find meaning and pride in our original cultures, South African youths are in search of their cultural identities and thus more prone to create new identities, we are in search for a connection to our cultures.
Do you feel that Western culture and identity sometimes overrides or is given prevalence over African culture and identity?
Yes, Western countries have dominated the world for centuries and still do so today. Western culture is given prevalence over African culture and identity, the more Western you look and behave the better your chances of living a 'good' life, you will also be highly esteemed by society. The fact that we have to learn English as first language in many of our schools for us to have better opportunities in our future is an example of how Western culture is given prevalence, I had a friend who learned Venda as a first language and English as a second, she suffered greatly in University because there are no textbooks in Venda. In Germany they teach English as a second language and their media (billboards, newspapers, magazines, etc.) is all in German, this creates a pride in their heritage and identity. Also the fact that I can't walk bare chested in town as an unmarried woman (this a cultural norm for Africans) is an indicator that we are limited in expressing our cultures.
And lastly, what does being your most authentic self mean to you? Being my authentic self means not forgetting my upbringing and the good things that have lead me to where I am today. It is knowing where I come from, deciding who I want to be and taking accountability for all my actions. It is not compromising my core identity for validation from people, especially those who have not contributed anything good to my journey. Being my authentic self is following a God-given purpose, understanding why I have been placed here on earth and acting according to that knowledge.
Photography: Anaka, Kgomotso Neto and Trevor Stuurman (for Vogue)