In the project Leathered Skins, Unchained Hearts, South African photographer Paul Shiakallis uncovers the hitherto overlooked queens of Botswana’s Marok scene

By the time Paul Shiakallis first visited Botswana in 2011 he was well aware of the Marok scene. Having studied photography at Tshwane University of Technology and assisted photographers overseas, he knew that the so-called Metal Cowboys of Marok (Setswana for ‘rocker’) had piqued the interest of many Western media outlets and already been shot by photographers such as Frank Marshall and Daniele Tamagni. An espalier from the country’s rock scene of the 1970s and 1880s, the Maroks fascinated and confounded the culturally simplistic vision of Africa through Western eyes thereby garnering worldwide attention.

Donning top to tail black leather in the sweltering Kalahari heat, the Marok intersect looks from Botswana’s biker community with farm wear and heavy metal stage attire. More is more as jackets and boots layer with spikes, buckles, bullet belts and vintage band t-shirts replete with corpses springing out from their crypts. Interestingly, many Marok work in the public sector in jobs such as prison warders and police officers yet in their free time they seemingly flaunt mainstream conventions.

It was only returning to Tlokweng in late 2014 that Shiakallis encountered his first Marok queen, hitherto underdocumented by others. These women instantly caught his eye with their extreme look and uninhibited physical energy. “They had this menacing freedom about them,” he explains. “The scene allowed the queens to be raucous and unladylike. In more conservative societies, especially ones guided by religious beliefs, people expect females to set an example, to behave, to be subservient and to dress and talk decently. The heavy metal lifestyle is symbolic of rebellion; and I think the women, although some do not realise it, are rebelling against what normal society expects from them.”

“The heavy metal lifestyle is symbolic
of rebellion; and I think the women, although
some do not realise it, are rebelling against
what normal society expects from them”

Yet surprisingly, some of the Marok community themselves seemed dead-set on subsuming the queens and their look. For many of the women, it’s only at home, at night, under the cloak of exotic rock pseudonyms that they can let their metal freak flag fly online. “I noticed that the queens use social media, especially Facebook, as a platform to come out. They will post images of family and friends, funny memes and then out of nowhere there’s a pic of a skeleton in flames; or a selfie in black leather,” says Shiakallis. “The men can do what they want with little consequences. They will openly tell their friends and family that they are a rocker, they will even wear trinkets of their outfits to work. Whereas some queens are rockers in secret for fear of criticism from their colleagues, family and church members.”

Social media also proved to be Shiakallis’ key to unlocking the scene and beginning his photo project dedicated to the queens. He met out queen Millie, who became his fixer, arranging a series of introductions that allowed him to gather up enough contacts to warrant another visit to Botswana, one of a further four across eight months. Through Millie he hung with both the cowboys and girls of the scene at house parties and bars and even partook in head banging in car boots. Despite having spent a lot of downtime with them, trust remained a big issue for the queens he’d become friendly with.

“I still had great difficulty getting the girls to commit to shoot. Some asked for money, others were worried about being exploited.”

Some of the Marok men proved unhelpful too. “On a number of occasions, when I’d call to confirm, boyfriends or husbands would answer the phone and thwart the shoot. They did not want their women talking to another male, and I think that some did not want them to be photographed for fear that they will get too much attention from other lustful men.”

Why do the queens put themselves through it? “Some queens dress for the event, they treat it as a dress-up party. Others do it to please their men, but they themselves are not necessarily into rock music. But for others, especially the ones over 30, the Marok scene is a lifestyle. Millie for example will come home after work, put on her Skinflint t-shirt and black jeans and play Manowar on her sound system while she cleans her house and prepares supper for her kids.”

Shiakallis amplifies the contrast between the queens’ image and their daily lives by shooting them in their home surrounds. In their layers of leather, studs and spandex the queens stare out from the domesticity of their kitchens or among their living room furniture. Landscapes also interjected among the women’s portraits, further emphasising the contrast of the everyday with the extraordinary, dark plumage of these queens of the night.

Having completed Leathered Skins, Unchained Hearts in January this year - and it’s since received a significant amount of praise from around the world - how has it affected the lives for the queens he featured? “Most are very happy with the outcome of the images, they feel proud and appreciate the acknowledgement they yearned for. After reading some of the press, they understand that what they stand for has relevance in society. It was also a way for them to come-out to their families and also to inspire other females to join the movement.”

Today's Marok the scene continues to thrive. Key players in local bands such as Skinflint and Overthrust keep the movement going through live shows, though their music (African metal and black metal respectively) differs to the old school heavy metal and hard rock bands they grew up listing to (such as Iron Maiden and AC/DC). Perhaps now the time has come for the queens to take their rightful place alongside their male counterparts.

Words Will Larnach-Jones
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