Tsoku Maela’s most poignant work, ‘Abstract Peaces’, which sheds a bright light on mental illness in the black community, has been hailed by critics. But the artist says he simply wants to use his work to magnify human complexities.
By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
All images by: Tsoku Maela
There is no doubt that Abstract Peaces, sparked a tidal wave of dialogues around mental health among the black community, on social media.
The exhibition was able to engage young black people about the stigmatized topic, mental illness, that is silently eroding the youth. Through Tsoku’s powerful images, people were able to get a rare glimpse of a young South African battling with mental illness.
Since then, the name Tsoku Maela, has become a prominent feature when highlighting brave black artists who are raising awareness about mental helath.
Blacklight chats with the Limpompo-born photographer, director and writer, who is based in Cape Town, and he gives us a glimpse of his life journey, living with bipolar disorder.
Blacklight: What would you say is your main intention with your work?
Tsoku Maela: Human connection and enlightenment are very important to me. Transparency in a world that is in a constant game of charades and false ideals or standards, where even the non-conformists eventually conform because they feel alone. Individuality is romanticized in theory but criticized in practice. So the work aims to turn all of those false ideals on their heads and bring it back to what really matters.
The human mind is an interesting discussion, often conflicted between who we are, who we think we are and who the world thinks we are.
BL: And what would you say your creative journey in documenting human complexities has taught you about the current state of mind of humans?
TM: The human mind is an interesting discussion, often conflicted between who we are, who we think we are and who the world thinks we are. In our solitude one of those becomes clear but when we go out into the world, we find ourselves surrounded by conflicting opinions and ideas. But there seems to be a unifying aspect in the current state of mind and a mass shift in mass consciousness as we all seek the truth. How we go about is the only impasse.
BL: I came to know you through your chilling work, Abstract Peaces, and like many, I was grateful that a young black artist was finally creating a conversation around mental health. What would you say pushed you to be so publicly open about your journey with depression?
TM: HHP (Hip Hop Pantsula) came out with his story on his struggles with suicidal urges and the public’s shameful response to that was like watching another kid getting bullied in the playground. Somewhat of an impulsive reaction on my part, I must admit, but had I been silent about my experience and held onto the body of work, that would’ve probably made me feel a whole lot worse.
BL: What are some of the lessons you learned about yourself that you pass on to other people struggling with mental illness?
TM: When we speak of mental illness, we need to be more inclusive of other conditions and disabilities for those who find themselves in that predicament. It would be ignorant of us to focus only on depression.
Children get diagnosed with ADHD (Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), off-the-hip, for their eccentric behaviours. What is a child suppose to act like? They grow believing that something is wrong with them and popping 20-40 pills a week for the rest of their lives.
So, firstly we need to be more inclusive of those who live with Schizophrenia, another misunderstood condition. Eating disorders, common in teenagers and young adults, and obesity rate in SA is a problem as it is. We also need to interrogate the diagnosis of patients based on DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) and the institutionalzation of patients.
There is so much. But whatever the case, we need to realise that those conditions don’t make you any less of a person and the approach to treatment and re-integration of patients into society should mirror that.
My art is the cure. Everything makes sense when I create. I’m at peace.
BL: You shared quite an interesting statement on social media this year, which partly read: “The war in mental health is not only that on ignorance but that of rehabilitation and treatment. People spend their lives being treated: ‘managing’) their condition than being reintegrated into society and equipped with skills. The big winners here are pharmaceutical companies”. What inspired such a statement?
TM: There are some things we have come to accept as normalities in society, but they are actually anomalies that need to be re-addressed. The mental institutions are not the only ones housing those living with mental issues. Prisons are others, except the former serves the white population and the latter is for people of colour.
A lot of the inmates with severe mental conditions are merely regarded as criminals but rarely receive proper diagnosis and treatment. The pharmaceutical industry is a business. The companies will always make money because their medication is FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regulated and has to be prescribed. If you can name a condition, they can make a pill.
More often than not the patients’ dosage increases every year while they get slightly worse, with their self-esteem shattered. That is not progressive. That is called maintenance.
BL: How do you manage your condition on a daily basis?
TM: My situation is a bit complex as there are spiritual ties to it. I used to be on Prozac 4 years ago, but stopped taking any medication and decided to figure it out for myself. My bipolar isn’t as severe as some may think, I have seen worse.
My art is the cure. Everything makes sense when I create. I’m at peace. The darkness is full of mystery but challenges your perspective. Meditation is also another key factor, finding a place to be quiet and just focus on your breathing, nothing intense.
Clear your mind. Reflect daily. And if you’re looking for more herbal and natural remedies, there are plenty like Sceletium, a plant indigenous to South Africa that has multiple purposes, one of them being to raise your serotonin levels – a great counter to depression. You can take in pill form, too.
Knowing that someone out there is trying the get better, to live a happier life, gives me hope that we can change the narrative.
BL: What do you think needs to change in order for young black people to face mental illness so that it stops being a silent killer?
TM: Open dialogue and re-education amongst ourselves. Share what you know and allow people to express themselves without judgement. Hear them out.
We are smart and loving people but have been conditioned to hate ourselves and our fellow people. We don’t communicate to listen and understand. Young men need to be taught that it’s okay to feel and to be fragile, too. There are layers to all of these which lead to issues much deeper than just mental illness that need to be addressed before we could even arrive at that.
This is the reason this generation’s voices are so important because we are rewriting the narrative and telling it as it is. Who would’ve thought that this issue is prevalent in all African communities, globally? I didn’t know that until the work went out.
BL: Since you released your work, what would you say has been the main reaction?
TM: People have been very welcoming, open and loving, to be honest. Some stories I receive are heartbreaking and I feel helpless half the time. But that moment of conversation is always beautiful, knowing that someone out there is trying the get better, to live a happier life, gives me hope that we can change the narrative. Less people taking their lives or turning to drugs to cope, but fueling all of that into their passions. It’s beautiful.
BL: Lastly, now that you have started this powerful and poignant dialogue, what is your biggest wish, going forward?
TM: I can only wish for a culture of artists that create out of necessity, to inspire, to challenge the status-quo, to innovate, not for the spectacle and for show. There is so much power in the craft and it would be a shame to see it all go to waste for a few retweets and likes.
Lastly, take your time in your work, let it grow with you and you along with it. The online sphere can be toxic, so don’t be afraid to go missing if you’re creating something you feel is meaningful. You might change someone’s life or change a whole society’s mindset.
For more on Tsoku’s work go to 99loop