JOHANNESBURG — “Those are white people problems” is often the response to mental illness in black communities across the globe. The conditions of many are often misunderstood and mistreated, due to fear and a lack of understanding about how to discuss and treat these issues. South African photographer Tsoku Maela hopes to change that.
In his latest series, Abstract Peaces, Maela turns the lens on himself, taking us along on his personal quest to find peace in spite of his lifelong experience with depression and anxiety. The artist chronicles his journey as a way to express himself in a culture where mental illness is often a taboo topic. Since sharing the work publicly, he has learned that mental illness in the black community is not only an African issue, but one that affects black people across the globe.
The series is comprised of 22 works, including conceptual photographs and word art created from diary entries. Together, the text and images highlight the pain, but also the beauty in depression. Abstract Peaces captures the struggles people with mental illness face day by day, silently. The work has sparked a conversation in South Africa and abroad that has encouraged millennials throughout the African diaspora to use their voices and help destigmatize mental health issues.
I spoke with the artist about Abstract Peaces, the influence of the series, and his thoughts on the way mental illness is perceived in the black community.
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Kyla McMillan: Why is the issue of mental illness so important to you? Why is it something you chose to explore in your work?
Tsoku Maela: I wouldn’t say I directly chose to explore it. It caught me in the moment. At the time I was creating other work, but I was battling my own issues, mentally, as well. It took me over a year, actually, to come to terms with the fact that this work is really about mental illness. Luckily for me, the aesthetic is pretty surreal so I could get away with it.
KM: That’s interesting. It’s true that not every photograph in the series screams, “I’m dealing with mental illness!” But as a whole, the series speaks to this understanding that having mental illness is something you sort of deal with silently, at least in our communities, and your viewer can understand it if they, too, are part of the club.
TM: That’s true — very true. Lately, though, seeing other artists coming out and talking about it, saying, “Look, this is an issue in the African community,” I just started to feel like it would be a crime for me to keep quiet about it, so I said, “Let’s talk about it, let’s get a conversation going.” I thought, Why not just be honest about this body of work and see where it goes?
KM: Has that element of conversation, of social interaction, had an effect on your work? We’re in a time now where everyone can reach anyone, and I’m curious how these connections have affected you, especially after producing this series.
TM: It’s been great. People from all over the world have been emailing me and sending me messages, speaking about their own mental illnesses. I thought this was an African problem, but people from different countries started saying the same things. It’s been really eye-opening to see that it’s an issue in African diasporas all over the world. I recently got an e-mail from a woman in Ottawa who didn’t say overtly that she was dealing with mental illness, but she did mention that she and a group of other creators were coming together to try to destigmatize mental illness in African communities overseas.
KM: Let’s talk a little bit about the process for creating Abstract Peaces. The photographs vary greatly, but tell me about what happens from conception to final product.
TM: It’s a spiritual process for me. I don’t sit down and think about it. It’s kind of a feeling; I feel it and then, in the moment, I create it. Shooting Abstract Peaces was really difficult, because every body you look at was actually me, feeling like that. I had to put myself in that space. Luckily for me, I’ve been dealing with my depression head on, so I know my triggers, and I also know how to get myself to feel a certain way. It was a really personal and painful process. Everything I create, I try to do from raw, authentic emotion. And then I put it out there. Somebody will find something in it. There’s always an audience.
KM: In a lot of the photographs you see images of flowers or birds in flight. What’s the significance of that imagery?
TM: (laughs) Right? To be quite honest, I can give you an answer, but I can’t really go in depth because sometimes I just have a spiritual connection to something. But I use the rose, predominantly because I feel like it’s a really powerful plant. Beautiful but dangerous at the same time. For you to get close to it, you have to be brave, in a way. And with birds, I think they have a level of freedom that human beings could never really understand. We crave this sense of flight, but we forget that being grounded is also really important. But really, these are just things I sometimes see in my dreams and don’t really interpret.
KM: That is, I think, one of the best things about art. You’re reminding me of an artist talk I went to and, during the Q&A, a woman in the audience gave a whole monologue about how the painter used blue in his work, and how significant that was to her. Then she asked why, in one of the works in his series, he used red. She was expecting some profound answer, and he just said, “Because I ran out of blue paint.”
TM: (laughs) That’s hilarious. It’s exactly true, though. I try to figure it out as I go along as well. Sometimes it’s not that serious, and sometimes you’re not in control. I didn’t start making art from an arts background; I studied science. So being able to create works in two or three months has been a surreal experience. Sometimes I wonder, How am I able to do this? Am I tapping into a higher frequency? I’m here as a vessel.
KM: Let’s talk about your cultural influences and how they’ve affected you. Where are you from and how is mental illness perceived there?
TM: I grew up in a small town called Lebowakgomo in the Limpopo province. Like many places in South Africa, it’s very closed off. People still practice tradition. So for someone to come out and say “I’m struggling with mental illness,” the first response would probably be “Well, you study too hard.” In African popular culture, you see these strong males who are supported by women, and that is really what happens in our communities. So it’s difficult for anyone to come out and say they are struggling.
I told my mother I was struggling with manic depression and she said, “What is that?” I tried to explain it to her, but I could tell that she didn’t really understand. Two days later she called me and said, “I want to understand, but I don’t really because we haven’t been educated about it in the black community.”
I’ve known people who have killed themselves, and their families ask, “What did we do wrong?” I’m not pointing the finger at the black community. I’m saying maybe it’s time we try to educate our people about it. Maybe if they understood it better, they’d handle it better.
KM: In your recent essay, you wrote: “Depressed? Lighten up, you’ve been watching way too many of those white teen movies.” It’s this idea that anything that’s viewed negatively must be taken from Western, white culture.
TM: Yes, yes. I feel like there are things that black people don’t think they’re affected by, to be honest. You know, we use derisive phrases like “white people problems.” We’ve been taught that there are certain things that are just not our issues. Mental health? No. But no money to put food on the table? That’s black people problems. You know? We need jobs, we need to get educated. I think it’s because of the colonization of black countries, we feel like we need to catch up on a monetary level. We haven’t really assessed our mental issues, which is kind of strange. We are a race that has been through the most horrific things. It’s weird that we find it impossible that we would be susceptible to mental illness. It’s the strangest thing.
KM: So with the culture here in South Africa, what’s been the local response to your work?
TM: Most of the people who like and appreciate my work are European. South Africans are still coming to terms with it. Hopefully, in time, when the conceptual photography movement picks up here, we’ll realize that there’s a place for it and we can tackle real issues. Photography has been used to document South Africa. It’s documented our wars, you know, since 1976. Now we’re one of the global hotspots for fashion photography. Conceptual photography is also a way for us to engage with some of the serious topics in our history without sounding too preachy.
KM: What are your plans or hopes for exhibiting the work?
TM: I don’t want to showcase the work unless it’s really going to raise awareness around these issues. After showing my work at a few galleries, I’ve come to learn that people of color go into these spaces and they can’t really appreciate the work because they are so self-conscious. These are white spaces. It’s a very exhausting process. It proves to be very difficult. So I’ve started thinking alternatively, thinking bigger. We’ve started taking the art to the street. It’s meant to be interacted with. And, as a person of color, representation is really important.