The Queens of Marok

Paul Shiakallis, “Vicky” (2014) (all photos courtesy Paul Shiakallis and used with permission)

Beavis and Butt-head, in their AC/DC and Metallica t-shirts, might best sum up the stereotypical metalhead in the popular Western imagination: a young white dude who likes headbanging and hates authority, found mostly in American cities or in Nordic countries with long, dark winters and plenty of old churches to burn. But South African photographer Paul Shiakallis’s series Leather Skins, Unchained Hearts provides a visual alternative to this image. He documents the leather-clad women of Botswana’s metal subculture, called “Marok,” which translates to “rocker” in Setswana.

Last year, Shiakallis met a couple of Queens, as female Marok fans like to call themselves, at a gig in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital. As their Queen alter-egos, these women go by names like Onalenna Angelovdarkness, Amokian Lordess, and Phoenix Tonahs Slaughter. “They had this confidence and freedom about them — they could just let go without feeling they were going to be reprimanded,” Shiakallis tells Hyperallergic.

The Queens of Marok

Paul Shiakallis, “Bontle Sodah Ramotsietsane,” 2014

This type of self-expression is rare for women in Botwana’s conservative patriarchal society. Since mainstream culture often perceives metal as “satanic,” many women of the Marok movement wear more traditional clothing by day and only reveal their brutal alter-egos in their Facebook photos, posing in full metal regalia, often in front of trees outside at night. “I believe facebook allows u to be who u are. only girls who believe in themselvs and aint afraid to express themselves can be rockers, [sic]” one Queen, Phoenix Tonahs Slaughter, told Shiakallis. “They don’t tend to pose aggressively like the men do, so I liked that they showed a softer side to the Marok movement,” Shiakallis says.

Shiakallis began photographing these Queens in their homes, a project that proved more difficult than he’d expected. “Every portrait I took almost never happened,” Shiakallis says. “Sometimes, the Queens’ boyfriends or husbands would thwart the shoots,” since they didn’t want their partners to be photographed by, or even in the presence of, another male. “Some Queens were reluctant to pose for photographs, wary about where the images would end up, as they’re still ‘coming out’ as rockers.”

The Queens of Marok

Paul Shiakallis, “Debbie Baone Superpower” (2014)

In bullet belts, spiked cuffs, leather jackets, bandanas, and Iron Maiden t-shirts, the women in Shiakallis’ photographs resemble characters from post-apocalyptic cinema, like the road warriors from Mad Max. Marok fashion fuses the styles of 1970s and ’80s heavy metal (specifically, from the cover of Motorhead’s Ace of Spades); the tasseled leather jackets and black boots of Botswana’s sizeable biker community; and the cowboy hats, spurs, and vests worn by many of the country’s rural farmers. Posing against backdrops of rural villages, pastel-painted bedrooms, and cozy living rooms, these Queens highlight how the Marok subculture is a kind of fantasy world, an escape from the confines of tradition and domesticity.  

Skinflint, Metal Orizon, Wrust, Crackdust, Overthrust, and Amok are some of Botswana’s biggest metal bands, but since the Marok scene is very small, they only play shows every few months. “When they do have a show, rockers from all around Botswana make the effort to show up, even if they have to travel 700km from another town,” Shiakallis says. At festivals or shows with big lineups, the Morok tend to unite beforehand to “march for a cause.” They first donate to an elected charity, then march together, led by Marok men dragging chains on the ground as the parade of metalheads mount each others’ shoulders and play fight in “ritualistic dances.” “It’s a very surreal sight,” Shiakallis says.

The Queens of Marok

Paul Shiakallis, “Bonolo” (2014)

The Queens of Marok

Paul Shiakallis, “Katie Dekesu” (2014)

The Queens of Marok

Paul Shiakallis, “Distant Hill” (2014)

The Queens of Marok

Paul Shiakallis, “Millie Hans” (2014)

The Queens of Marok

Paul Shiakallis, “From Mokatse Boulder” (2014)

The Queens of Marok

Paul Shiakallis, “Phoenix Tonahs Slaughter” (2014)

The Queens of Marok

Paul Shiakallis, “Samie Santiago Newsted” (2014)

The Queens of Marok

Paul Shiakallis, “Sierra” (2014)

The Queens of Marok

Paul Shiakallis, “Snyder” (2014)

The Queens of Marok

Paul Shiakallis, “Green Field” (2014)

The Queens of Marok

Paul Shiakallis, “Lonely House” (2014)

The Queens of Marok

Paul Shiakallis, “Backyards” (2014)

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

18 replies on “The Queens of Botswana’s Metal Scene”

  1. I don’t understand this article, and this is actually subject matter I am interested in reading and seeing. What were these women photographed on, a 1990’s camera phone? Why are you publishing with this resolution/dpi?
    Also, this reads like a paid advertisement for the photographer. The captions don’t even speak of the subjects aside from the name he’s assigned the image. I find it alienating, as it dehumanizes the women and the setting of each photo which I would like to know more about. Photo credit is generally stated once at the beginning, or inconspicuously on the vertical of an image, or in the gutter. Here his name is front and centre on everything, even appearing twice on one photo which is overkill. Not to knock another person’s work, because I love the project, and the staging of what he is trying to do here. However, I can’t make out much detail, and these still life images are subpar at best. They take you on a very average meander away from the focal point of this photo story. Even if they were high rez, stunning panoramas, you have to decide what you’re saying to the audience. Is it about the Marok, or about the country landscape? I have to wonder, “Is this person a relative of someone at Hyperallergic?” I’ve never visited this site before, but this particular story gives the impression of a high school publication. These women should have been the focus of this piece. Unfortunately, you chose to outshine them by constantly forcing our attention on Shiakallis, ( a whole 26 times ) in a relatively short article, which made for an uncomfortable read. Not the best collaborative presentation of what an artist and publication can create. Try again… For the sake of your dynamic subjects.

      1. I don’t agree with everything he says, but he does make some good points, and respectfully so. Way less silly than a judgmental “mod” who gratuitously resorts to not-so-subtle insults.

          1. Yeah, how crazy of me, responding to the person I actually want to respond to! And how ironic that *you* would be the one to criticize people for not (allegedly) knowing how to use the internet… If anything, I’d say you’re the one out of your depth, here…

          2. Wow. I like how that somehow invalidates his points. Are you sure you’re a mod? You guys tend to be way more unbiased and impartial than this.

    1. It’s not too much, but if you right-click the images to open them in a new tab/by themselves you’ll get a picture named something like Phoenix-Tonahs-Slaughter-768×525.jpg. If you remove the resolution at the end (e.g. Phoenix-Tonahs-Slaughter.jpg) it’ll show the original resolution, which admittedly is still small.

    2. Hey, the photos are not that low res – it’s pretty default for the internet, they’re good. And the “old camera”, raw appearance of the photos is intentional, a matter of style. I find it very pleasing. The landscapes are beautiful and atmospherical and give the photos, and the women, some context. And maybe the women didn’t want to have their names and personal lives explicitly revealed, as you can have a clue by reading the article.

    3. I don’t understand the criticism. There are links in the article to the photographer’s website where larger versions of all these images are displayed. The photographs themselves are well done, and not overly enhanced after the fact in a digital imaging program. I appreciate this sort of raw photography. The landscapes, as Caroline J. pointed out, provide context. And in an era where photographers have to fight to get a simple photo credit for their work, and many are therefore inclined to plaster a giant watermark across images they put online, it’s nice to see a site giving proper credit on each and every photograph. As for the music, that’s something people can investigate further if their interest was piqued by the photo series. I’ve never seen anyone complain in similar articles about photographers who captured images of the late 70s English punk scene, or Japanese cyber-goth, that there were no links to the music people in those subcultures listened to. I thought this series was well done, as are other series’ on his site, and I appreciate this piece directing me to it.

  2. Does anyone have links to the actual bands? I keep seeing articles that are all about the clothes, which don’t get me wrong are pretty awesome, but I’m curious to hear the bands! Are any of them on bandcamp or something? (and yeah, I know recording equipment and even Internet access may be harder to come by there, but that doesn’t mean it’s non-existent)

    I mean, good for the photographer and all, but I think it’ll be a shame if he gets more money and exposure out of this sort of attention than the people at the heart of the scene he’s been photographing, assuming they’re online somewhere.

    1. After reading this I started digging. You can find quite a lot of Skinflint, Overthrust, Crackdust and Wrust on Youtube, including some official music videos. Amok has a Facebook page, but not much content. Unfortunately I was only able to find some casually recorded live performances by Metal Orizon with awful sound quality. Terrible shame as their music sounds like by far the most interesting. Also, apart from Wrust, the production values of most of this stuff, even the official videos, is very primitive – a bit like European underground stuff in early 1990s. It takes a bit of effort to enjoy the really great songwriting behind it.

      1. All of them are on Metal Archives, meaning they all have put out albums (mandatory for having profile on there). You can find out more about them and where you can get their music there. Skinflint for example is signed to a European label.

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