When we think of heavy metal, we don’t automatically think of Botswana. But Paul Shiakallis‘ new series, Leathered Skin, Unchained Hearts will completely change your perspective. Capturing a group of female heavy metal fanatics, Shiakallis highlights a burgeoning African metal community, as well as an underground feminist fight against society and convention.
Through vivid portraits, Shiakallis shares these women’s unlikely stories—mothers, wives, police officers by day, feminist dissidents at night. In an already traditionalist culture, these women are metal warriors, their love for the genre representing far more than the usual music fan. By wearing leather, attending concerts and going crazy on the stage, the metal Queens destroy stereotypes and challenge assumptions, redefining femininity for the modern age. Like the Riot Grrrls before them, the Marok use music as a catalyst for change. If Botswana wasn’t ready for a heavy metal rebellion, it’s too late—the Queens have made sure it’s well underway.
BULLETT caught up with Paul Shiakallis to learn more about the movement. View images from Leathered Skins, Unchained Hearts above, and read our interview with the photographer, below.
Bontle Sodah Ramotsietsane
Tell me about the series, Leather Skins, Unchained Hearts.
The whole idea started when I was in Botswana at a concert. In the media, the men have always been the voice of the movement. And I just thought, ‘Where are the woman?’ Because in a patriarchal society, as a man, you can do anything you want. Whereas a woman, for me that narrative was a lot more interesting.
What themes do you explore in the photos?
Femininity and feminism—rebellion against patriarchy. Self-identity, group identity, self-expression, artistic expression. I would call these women artists, more than just fans that listen to heavy metal, because they go out and buy these outfits and customize and modify them, instead of always going the traditional route.
What inspired the shoot?
When I first started connecting with the queens, we were chatting on social media, so I was going through their Facebook pages. I was noticing how they would take photos of each other in their homes, in private spaces, and in their gardens, wearing their leathers or wearing just their normal clothes. It was fantastic to see the contrast between how they looked normally and how they looked dressed up, and those visuals they took on their cell phones were quite powerful—they were very domesticated, they weren’t posing too heavily, they were just kind of these normal, mundane shots of them in their environments. That’s what inspired me.
Debbie Baone Superpower
What were you trying to convey?
The Marok is quite symbolic of rebellion. I want people to look at them and think, ‘If I could as an individual, if I believed so much in a certain kind of music or something I really believed in, I shouldn’t worry that society is going to criticize me for doing it.’ These girls have created something and I don’t think it was intentional, but they created something where now that they’re known and the news is getting out there and people are seeing them—they are able to influence people. It’s really important to realize that certain things like music and a culture and a sense of belonging can create change.
I was immediately interested in the series because I would never think there would be any sort of metal scene in Botswana, let alone this group of women who are so into it.
That’s the most fascinating part for anybody. Being in such a rural place like Botswana, what are the chances that something like this would exist? Even for us in South Africa, we’re just not used to seeing African women wearing leather outfits and rocking to heavy metal music. You’d think it’d probably be a bit more common in Johannesburg or Cape Town, but it’s not.
Samie Santiago Newsted
Has the series changed that?
What’s starting to happen is they’ve influenced the other African countries quite a bit and other women are starting to join—they’re starting to dress up and whatnot. When I met them, it really broke down my assumption that African women can’t enjoy heavy metal music. And they completely defy any standard of what it means to be ladylike. These women are rockers—they’re out of control, doing these crazy sex moves on stage, smashing bottles, just being insane. But then you speak them, and they’re just completely normal human beings with normal jobs, like a police officer. It’s such a huge contrast.
In a lot of ways, you’re exploring identity, and the duality of it, especially for women. Because of societal convention, these women act a certain way in their domesticated lives. But then there’s this whole other part of their lives.
They’re artists in that sense. Instead of an artist painting or writing or taking photographs, they’re expressing their art on their bodies. As an artist, I think you express who you are, who you’ve met along the way, your influences, your upbringing, all that within your art. That’s exactly what they do—they get wild. And compared to the men, they show a lot more of themselves.
Is there a reason the women have to keep this part of themselves so separate?
Botswana is a patriarchal society, so it’s just kind of shunned. Even the men—they’re very open about it, but the normal people don’t really accept it. Still, they can do what they want. But for the women, they’re expected to be ladylike, they’re expected to be subservient, submissive, to be good examples for their kids, to believe in God, to go to church—for them to do this, even though they do all of those other things too, is really fighting the system and rebelling against it.