Tsoku Maela: The difficult conversations are the ones we need to have

It was roughly one year after putting his self-portrait series Abstract Peaces out into the world that Tsoku Maela revealed the truth of its origins: The photographs were born from his personal struggle with manic depression. Since then, the body of work has struck a resounding chord, and the overwhelming response its been met with shows how much a candid dialogue is needed to chip away at the persisting, damaging stigmas surrounding mental illness.

By day, the AFDA film graduate works in Cape Town as a screenwriter for the youth show Hectic Nine-9. It’s a position he’s held for just over a year and is his first foray into television. After hours, Tsoku is a practicing visual artist working in photography – he developed an affinity for the medium after a perplexing medical emergency in 2014 prompted him to dust off his camera and begin experimenting with surreal, metaphorical portraits. In September 2015 he had his first solo show with 99 Loop Gallery, exhibiting the conceptual photo series Broken Things and championing an essential message of self-love. The first edition of the collection sold out on the opening night. “It’s all been a really beautiful journey, like a second shot in life,” Tsoku says, speaking of how he’s found his path. He uses art to speak out on important human-centric issues, evoke empathy, and spark conversations that lead to meaningful change – and he knows there’s a lot of work yet to be done.

Tsoku Maela #Bayeza16 (1)

While your work is visually beautiful, it doesn’t always make for easy viewing. What conversations are you hoping to spark through your art?

Thank you, very kind of you to say. It’s always been a goal to translate stories on multiple platforms for the accessibility and artistic novelty. To be limitless in resource, hoping to touch on topics that are on our lips but no one is brave enough to speak about in open spaces. Ranging from human visceral struggles and spirituality to consumerism and socio-economic discussions. Having opinions of my own, I tend to approach a piece or a body of work with an objective eye, creating neutral ground for progressive ideas to spawn.

Your recent photo series Abstract Peaces really struck a chord, showing how urgently we need to foster a healthy dialogue around mental illness – particularly in communities where it’s not regarded as a serious or valid issue. Tell us more about your experience around these images, from their creation to their reception.

Creating the body of work was quite a surreal experience. I spend a lot of time by myself, but I became a borderline hermit during that time and I think the isolation shows in the images. Dealing with the few mania highs and many lows of manic depression takes a toll on you but I found a lot of peace and growth creating this body of work and it’ll probably be the one that saved me from myself. Also coming to terms with my dreams; the fact that I see things in them that I’ve never seen in reality with a sense of familiarity can be scary, especially when you already think you’re crazy.

It took me a year or so to finally admit to the world what the body of work was about. More out of necessity to be honest, because I realised I wasn’t the only one dealing with this and I grasped the depths of ignorance after seeing comments to HHP’s openness about his many failed suicide attempts. It had to be addressed.

So the response came as a shock to me because contemporary photography isn’t the easiest to digest, let alone on a topic like mental illness. A lot of high school kids started doing their school projects on the series to deal with their own demons which was incredible to hear. These kids get othered and bullied for being ‘different’ on a daily basis, and the work inspired them to take their power back. And that’s only a start. More work needs to be done for sure.

A previous body of work, Broken Things, centered on the notion of self-love. Why do you think that something so vital is also something so many of us struggle to achieve? What’s your own journey been here?

We are a society of consumers and voyeurs. We always feel like we need to be more, when in truth we were born complete but compressed (just like the ever expanding universe). We compare ourselves to someone else and try to be something else. Tabloids and mainstream media tell us how we should look, how to have the perfect relationship, what we should’ve achieved by 30. Self-loathing is only a symptom of a larger ill. It’s the result of feeling inadequate, and in our world everyone is pretending to have it all figured out while everyone feels disenchanted looking for a quick fix.

Today, social media culture plays a large role in that, too. Everyone’s life is perfect on there, and others place too much pressure on themselves to be as good, if not greater. I used to struggle with that myself, we all do at some point, but it was when I realised my gifts and started feeding my strengths that I appreciated my own journey and stopped comparing myself to others. Back then I ran away from them, but today I ask myself how I’m supposed to elevate without flaws (pun intended).

'Eye of the beholder' from Broken Things by Tsoku Maela
‘Eye of the beholder’ from Broken Things by Tsoku Maela

At your gallery show for Abstract Peaces, you had a particularly touching encounter with a man responding to the image titled ‘Rage. Regret. Return’. Have you had any similar interactions since?

Yeah, that was a huge turning point. Realising that the work had impact. I’ve had many of those interactions and continue to – both personal and in writing.

‘Rediscover, not recreate’ is another image from Abstract Peaces that always gets a reaction. It’s incredible how such a simple image has people talking spiritual, cultural and ethical divides in the same room. Is he painting on? Is he painting off? What does it all mean? The plot twist is that they’re all right! Perspective is key on the journey of self-discovery, and that’s what the image is all about.

Broken Things as a whole, I think, felt important to a lot of people who mail on the daily. What I find mostly are not only messages surrounding body and image positivity, but an awareness to internal dialogue teetering on the sharp edges of self-hatred and the need to change that.

Something that’s important to you is making art accessible to everyone. How do you think we can and should strive to move art outside of white cube gallery spaces and into the public’s eye?

This is very true. If there’s anything I’ve learnt from showcasing work in gallery spaces it has to be that a lot of people felt overwhelmed by things that have been associated with the art culture. The names of wines, how to hold a glass right, attire, art speak. Some are anxious in crowded spaces. Rarely ever is it about what’s in front of them, the work itself. The idea of a gallery as a prestigious place to showcase work is somewhat flawed if you think about it. It’s nothing but a building, a few rooms, with some blank white walls that need your work to complete it. So what is an exhibition? If I went into a city and hung my works anywhere, that’s an exhibition. Might not sell for as much, but I’ll still reach people.

We have plenty of resources today to get our work out there, it’s just down to us really. I mean I ran an exhibition of Abstract Peaces on Instagram for a whole month and people came out and viewed it, left their thoughts, contacted me, enquired about purchasing. With that, and with some publications, I found the work reached more people than it would’ve in a gallery space. I’m talking countries I didn’t even know existed, haha. The work is also available on my site, forever. Talk about a life-long exhibition. It’s all a process of unlearning what we think we know and embodying the spirit of creativity outside of just creating art.

'Rediscover, not recreate' from Abstract Peaces by Tsoku Maela
‘Rediscover, not recreate’ from Abstract Peaces by Tsoku Maela

You’ve mentioned that for a while after you began taking photographs, your biggest audience was outside of Africa. Why do you think it’s taken some time for locals to warm up to your work?

I think anyone will tell you that photography is not yet considered an art form in South Africa. It’s growing into it. I’m talking general public views, not art circles.

Street style photographers, wedding photographers, documentary photographers, fashion and lifestyle photographers get a lot of recognition because that’s what we use photography for in SA, not as an art form. To us a painting is art. A drawing is art. So when I present my contemporary and conceptual work, it all gets confusing when I’m the only ‘photographer’ showcasing with painters at shows.

My style and processing technique is also not something you see very often locally, but I think in a few years we will see more photographers experiment with it and make it their own because a lot of people are starting to warm up to it. So much so that I get inboxes with surreal images from the net with the question: “Did you do this?”. Haha.

In your opinion, does creativity have the power to bring about meaningful change in South Africa? How so?

More so today than it did back in the day! It’s in the hands of the youth and the youth has the internet and platforms to express themselves without boundaries. Do you realise what that means? Not only more authentic content, but more creative people. More young South Africans following their passions and adding their voices to the culture. Documenting, commenting, shaping and changing perspectives.

We are starting to realise that real change isn’t a change in political party, real change is a change in mind set. Khumbula, The Honey, I See A Different You, Creative Nestlings…how many careers started off that? How many creatives got inspired and followed suit? Creativity and art isn’t a hobby, it’s a lifestyle. Picking up a camera or a paint brush, being an architect or starting a creative agency or whatever you do and want to do is so empowering – and that is what we as South Africans (especially the youth) have lacked for a long time.

African stories are often portrayed through a Western lens. Do you think this damages our local narrative? Why is it so important for creatives to tell their own stories?

I’ve wanted to do a conceptual piece on homelessness in Cape Town for a while now, but how do I tell a story and its true essence without living it? It’s all on the surface. So how do Western artists and media speak on African culture without experiencing its very core and essence? It’s a thin line between appreciation and appropriation.

How do white spaces continue to proudly showcase the work? Is Western culture not appealing to them? Is there nothing to be said of it even though it sets the benchmark of what ‘good’ art is?

So I guess the short answer to that question is yes. It has damaged the African narrative. But it’s all good because we have a lot of amazing artists coming out and telling it the way it should be told, and that’s the reason Africa is a honeypot of incredible talent for many European companies and brands at the moment. Telling our own stories is also important for future and emerging generations. Representation is important. Kwezi would agree if he was taking my calls.

'The anointing' from Barungwa by Tsoku Maela
‘The anointing’ from Barungwa by Tsoku Maela

Recently young people have been the drivers of important conversations around issues of identity, history and politics. What do you think is behind the resurgence of youth activism in this generation?

I don’t think there’s a resurgence. It’s always been there, but now we see it more. Just like racism in SA. I think now more than ever we are becoming aware of underlying issues due to the availability of information thanks to social media. Things that would go unnoticed in the past are now on blast before the media can tamper with them. That has sparked a real need for change within the youth.

We also need to take into account that the new generation is a generation of humanitarians of sorts. They tend to be concerned with the environment and issues that directly impact people due to this newfound knowledge of the world they live in. Something about that world isn’t right and they want to fix it.

Mass consciousness and art are playing a huge role in that, too. Hope is contagious. When you see more people like you doing amazing things that impact people’s lives, you believe it’s possible. The youth of today believe and are equipped in knowledge to make that change.

What is unique, exciting or encouraging about being young in our country today?

We’re awake and know where we want the country to go. That gives us the freedom to speak on anything we feel passionate about, and with increased collaboration between professions we’re also seeing more dreams realised. We have the power to inspire emerging generations.

What will the legacy of today’s youth be?

Freedom. Real freedom. You know, the one that doesn’t allow you only a customary vote, but the kind of freedom that empowers you to realise your dreams.

Tsoku Maela #Bayeza16 (3)

Photographs of Tsoku by Neo Baepi.

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