Johannesburg - To let yourself be seen, to be made vulnerable, is a rare starting point for an artist. The artist must first be certain and confident, outspoken and then steadfast. But photographic artist and mental health activist Tsoku Maela argues otherwise. He exposes his shames, and imperfections whole-heartedly to explore a new struggle for meaning, and it’s invaluable.
In his new series of pictures, Be Glad U R Free, Maela moves forward from his now-famous Abstract Peaces images – which explored mental health at a time when he was personally unwell – to a place where he is doing better, “better than ever”, he explains from Johannesburg this week. He’s just moved back to the city from Cape Town after he quit his job as a screenwriter, and then spent a month in Limpopo with his mother, hearing all the stories he never got around to asking her about.
“We sat together for the first time in a really long time and went through the photo albums, and I saw her smiling in all the pictures,” he says. “Seeing her so happy is not what you would think during that time in history. She started speaking about the pros and cons of being a black woman in apartheid, like how it was easier to get a job, for instance. Obviously you could actually only get a job being a nurse, a maid or a teacher, but it was easier than today, she said. And she was happy with that partial freedom that she had.
“I left there and had to start interrogating what that meant for the black body, for my body. I didn’t know what freedom meant if it was only in part.” So he started to explore and interrogate his own life, and he did so with time on his hands and no restrictions on his work – freedom, by all accounts. But he was not free, he says, and tells all of it in what came out of this new body of work: Photographs, films, voice recordings, and phone conversations (he calls them “cassettes”), even a series of freestyle recordings of his “terrible singing and rapping”.
(Death by Narcissus: A self-portrait)
“In South Africa we associate our freedom with what happened in 1994, and so I started trying to take it from the perspective not of political freedom, but of consciousness. Are we free in our minds?” he asks. “We are conditioned to be a way that subjugates a certain freedom. For my mother she came from that time, so it’s understandable, but it’s a conversation and process that we are both unlearning and which we all need to start undoing.”
In Fathers & Sons he “unlearns” by going back to his own story again, delving deeper into the complicated relationship he had with his late father – a police officer – to investigate power.
“He used to be a CID agent, who are like plain clothes officers who do undercover work. I used to be very proud of him as a child, in fact I wanted to be a police officer just like him. But since then I’ve discovered that my body is being criminalised by predominantly black officers, who look just like my father, which is really hard to understand.
“Two years ago my friends and I came back from Wanderers Stadium where we were watching a cricket match, and on our way home we ended up, weirdly, taking the wrong turn. We drove straight into a murder scene that took place minutes before. A security guard was shot dead in the road. We saw him behind a group of plain clothes officers who told us to turn around and go a different route. We asked them for directions because we weren’t from that area and, out of nowhere, the policeman said we need to get out of our car.
“[We] ended up being interrogated about the jar of sugar in the boot that the cop was convinced was cocaine.” For two hours Maela and his friends were searched and questioned, all while a man lay dead on the road. “We saw the guy’s wife come to identify him afterward, and I’ll never forget the sight of this woman as she saw it was her husband.”
The layers of violence he experienced that day ripple across the police uniform in Maela’s images. “My father wore that uniform his whole life. How do you reconcile with that? I could go to prison for anything, for nothing, and that is scary, a fear we live with as black males growing up in this country.”
Mining his own life for images is all part of the process, but isn’t it hard to be so public with your problems?
“I feel like being open is necessary. My father was doing what he had to do to provide for us, but I have to be open about these things, because if you commit to being yourself, you do so fully.”
Be Glad U R Free will be on show from 1 June at Amplify Studio in Johannesburg, where Maela was a resident for three months, collaborating with various artists.
(Sifelani: Watching Rehad Desai’s Miners Shot Down forced the artist to relook at the Marikana massacre, and the country’s disconnection from the natural resources being mined and traded so abundantly.)