Interview by Wanda Lough
Tsoku Maela creates conceptual photography pieces conveying mental landscapes surrounding the African community. He focuses on showing subtle, unseen perspectives. Starting his art career recently in 2014, Tsoku “broke onto the international Art fair market for the first time in October 2016 at LagosPhoto festival”. Throughout his time, he has expanded into film. However, this interview examines his conceptual portraits through a lens of dreams, mental illness, and the intimacy the camera offers the artist.
Check out his work here.
Human Influence: According to your bio, you started presenting your work as an artist in 2014. How are you learning to become a career artist?
Tsoku Maela: Strangely, by trying not to be one. I didn't go to a fine art school. This was not the plan, but the medium is teaching me how to go with it and trust it. . . .
. . . .When people start to know who you are, people tend to think that's the time to be more public and visible, but for me it's the opposite. I like being in my own space, learning and trying to get better at what I do so the stories I have can be translated more vividly. . . . But I am thinking more strategically about where I place it and where it becomes visible.
HI: Does your work with screenwriting inform the emotions in your conceptual photography? Or do you find them as separate sides of yourself?
TM: In a sense it does. My images are layered because there has to progression in the story. There has to be character, conflict and resolution. Not in the series, but in the image itself. It has be nuanced and reflective of the human psyche. I can't tell you the number of prints I've thrown away because I become too self-indulgent without a narrative. Sometimes you're fortunate enough to have the narrative find you . . . . Then you piece it back together.
HI: What about the camera attracted you to the photography?
TM: The camera is something we've always considered a luxury item. By 'we' I speak of people that grew up in circumstances that don't offer second chances, you had to be with the societal game of putting any hobbies or dreams aside unless they were sports.
We only saw photographers during special events, like, weddings, traditional ceremonies or maybe even graduation days. The people behind the camera were always some old dude that looked like the very nice sensitive guy who was single and living with his Mom at 40 but still smiles like enjoys what he is doing. We had to look up to people that made it out of the township, educated, driving nice cars and living in the city, meanwhile this man looks like his life depended on weddings.
What attracted me to photography was convenience and maybe fate. I purchased a camera in my second year at film school. Thought I'd shoot my own films and learn how to direct, but it was the cheapest range and had full auto settings in video mode.
That made it useless to be honest. I shelved the camera until 2014, taking the odd picture here and there in full auto settings, popping the photo into photoshop, duplicating the layer and changing the blending mode to soft light. The colors would pop like crazy. That was it.
I didn't see it as particularly useful, so much, that I almost sold it off Gumtree, which is like Ebay. The guy came to the house but offered me less than the fee we had agreed. So I kept it and never used it. It was a disappointing experience because it cost us money we did not have.
That was until I got ill, had a revelation of sorts, became dead broke in the process and all I had were narratives I couldn't afford to make. So I decided to create still images that told the whole three act narrative, and maybe more, in a single frame. Self-portraits don't cost that much to make. Now, I think the camera is the eye of the Universe, the way it stares whimsically back itself...
HI: Your artwork is mainly conceptual photography, and to me, it comes off very dreamlike. Do your dreams inform your work? How so?
TM: They did play a significant part in the beginning. I wasn't spending too much time outside. The world into adulthood was very new to me. Had just graduated, had a job as a copywriter. My imagination was burning with an anti-system, 'fuck film school's way of telling narratives' , mentality.
Sometimes I'm in the shower. Sometimes I'm on the toilet seat. Sometimes I'm asleep or daydreaming. Sometimes you're the girl that woke up in my bed and the first thing I said you in the morning was 'You know I have a cool idea for a photograph...'
It became difficult to tell the difference between my waking existence and my actual dreams. It was happening all the time. I was still holding on, fighting in fact, for something beautiful while the world turned grey.
Today I'm more informed by the self, not within, but as a part of the grey trying to find color in it. I still maintain the vividness of dreams with the richness of an empowering Afrocentric narrative and my rebellion for dull imagery. So surrealism is the language of my dreams in the presence of my reality.
It is the language of my rebellion. To be yourself in a society of consensus is a rebellion. . . That's how I find the color in the grey. By using the things that are happening today in a reimagined world...
HI: Your story sort of reminds me of Frida Kahlo; in 2014 you found yourself bedridden at Christian Bernard Hospital -- what about that experience spurred the need to create?
Tsoku: I've never truly spoken in depth about that experience. Probably because I don't have the vocabulary to explain what exactly happen to me at that time. It was spiritual to say the least.
I shared ward with a geriatric expat, well into his 80's. We only spoke briefly on the day I got discharged, but the previous four days were quiet. We just observed each other like two paranoid hitmen. He started doing this thing where he would do everything I did. So If I picked up a newspaper, he would do the same. I'd page and he would page. It was strange but funny as well.
Anyway, he had no visitors for the duration of my stay and that concerned me a bit as he looked frail and wrinkled. Until a young woman came to see him the morning I was about to leave, briefly though. He regaled me with a tale of a young man from Slovenia with aspirations of going into architecture. He was drafted into the army but he did not want to go to war. So he fled his country and found himself in South Africa. He took a long ponderous look towards the window and said something that resonated with me and changed my life forever:
'People call me a traitor because I wanted to use my hands to build instead of destroy.' - I didn't respond, but I'd like to think that everything I've ever made affirms that sentiment within me.
HI: There's a quote from Ernest Becker (an anthropologist) that states -- "The artist takes in the world, but instead of being oppressed by it, he reworks it in his own personality and recreates it in the work of art. The neurotic is precisely the one who cannot create— The neurotic can't marshal this creative response embodied in a specific work, and so he chokes on his introversions. The artist too, has these large-scale introversions, but he uses them as material." A lot of your work surrounds mental illness. What advice would give those who are struggling to create?
TM: Mr. Becker may well have a point, however, every artist and novelty thinker began as neurotic by that definition at least. My perspective on mental illness, depression and anxiety specifically, have changed a lot since the last I spoke about them. There is currency in depression and anxiety as far as human freedom and actualization are concerned, more so in the cult of happiness that our society finds itself sacrificing a lot to with diminishing return. I'm no religious person by any stretch, but I'm aware of the texts. Many people have come and gone claiming to have heard the voice of God speaking to them, brandished deluded and crazy, sometimes lauded as prophets and evangelists. If that voice ever existed in whatever context you believe God to be - depression would be as clear as a bell. Depression is a deep melancholy that stems from being some sort of unmet desire or goal or a general displacement of the status-quo, internally or externally. Depression does not steal happiness from you, it takes away your vitality. Your will to be karma. Which is to say, you are more inherently passive, except when you have to feel waves of sorrow.
Anxiety on the other hand is an incredible gift to man. Kierkegaard once called it the dizziness of freedom. In the vastness of the universe, where our sun (the center of our solar system), is the largest object we can see with the human eye, turns out not to be the biggest object in the known universe. Reducing you to nothing but micro percentage of a grain of sand. Yet, realizing that you have control of something, your life, you can make decision and choices to change it for the better or worse. If you're reclusive, why do public spaces make you anxious? Because people see you or you think they do. Social anxiety, for example, literally stems from one feeling the pressure to be sociable. It has nothing to do with you being unable to socialize. There are people you will spend time with and say not a word, then ten minutes later you meet a kindred spirit and chat their ear off. I've spent a lot of time by myself in the past two years, being surrounded by strangers reminding me how great my work is, is something I appreciate, but from a distance. I like to study what's beneath. And anxiety has become a tool, I allow myself to feel it without identifying with it.
The cult of happiness we find ourselves in is highly profitable, but can you imagine the amount of damage one could do to a person by telling them that happiness is the ultimate goal? I would loath sadness with all my heart. So much that I would do anything to steer away from it. Happiness has become something identifiable by signs and symbols. What happens when they are taken away? How does one compute an emotion so natural yet so stigmatized as sadness?
My advice to them is that they are not struggling. The are discovering - how their mind works, how they contextualize self in the world around them. But most importantly they are looking at themselves and they have the chance to see themselves. It's not always a pretty sight, but it's worth it. Creating is a beautiful process, albeit a painful one at times, but beautiful nonetheless.
Above all, live. Live and love. Life gives us art and there is no greater truth than that. But without love, art has no fragrance.
HI: Do you believe historical oppression contributes to mental illness in South Africa? Or how do you feel mental illness has affected the black community in South Africa?
TM: I believe colonialism has done more than contribute to the state of mental health in Africans everywhere. Everywhere. I say this, too, knowing that the struggles that the African diasporas experience in South Africa are not that different to any other African diaspora anywhere. The correspondence I've received in that time can back that up.
What baffles the mind truly is that we think we are immune to it somehow. More than 400 years of conditioning and displacement, living in some of the most impoverished areas in the world. Caged up and reduced to chattel. Crime, violence, poverty, domestic abuse, brainwashed by religion as our only salvation, school indoctrinating us with fear of being inferior, let alone to be wrong or different in a pass or fail system. University fees so high that our non-existent generational wealth lands us into debt from college loans. Human beings in survival mode live in constant fear. The brain and the body never have time to heal. I remember one of my artist friends came to one of my exhibitions at a huge art fair here and was completely shocked to see the amounts my prints were going for. Having to explain to someone so educated and cultured that poverty isn't an African culture isn't something I should be doing. The indoctrination to look down on the self based on the color of your skin is enough to drive anyone crazy.
HI: Would you be willing to share a project you dream about working on but you haven't had the time, resources, or money to produce it yet?
TM: Not at all. I don't fantasize about projects. They either happen or they don't. Right now I'm putting together a show for March 2018 on the female form and that will comprise of images taken over the last two years. The project I'm producing, though, will bring you fully into my world. . . .
Wanda Lough: Autodidactic. Reads a lot. New to Austin area. From New Jersey and Arizona. No college degree. Art enthusiast and a professional admirer. Favorite album of 2016 was Wildflower.