Tsoku Maela is not used to the spotlight. But ever since he began sharing images of his “Abstract Peaces” series ― a collection of surreal self-portraits that represent his ongoing experience with depression and anxiety ― he’s begun to think about what it means to raise awareness of himself and the countless other people who struggle with mental illness.
Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Maela started producing his self-portraits back in 2014, after experiencing a “perplexing medical emergency” that consisted of unexplained chest pain requiring hospitalization. He says the five days he spent in the hospital, undergoing tests and contemplating his mortality, inspired him to pick up a camera and document his journey looking inward through art. The resulting images translate feelings of hopelessness and fear into abstract scenes involving sharks, smoke and cracks in the wall.
Eventually, the act of evaluating the ways anxiety and depression had affected Maela’s own health and well-being prompted him to look outward, too.
Growing up in Lebowakgomo, a small town in the Limpopo province, Maela felt unable to open up to his family about his manic feelings, largely due to the cultural stigma tied to mental illness in South Africa and beyond. “Mental illness in black communities is often misunderstood, misdiagnosed or completely ignored,” Maela writes online. In an essay, he elaborated on these misconceptions:
Growing up in a black community you quickly learn that there is a list of problems that do not ‘affect’ black people:
Mentally ill? Bewitched, or you simply study too hard.
Depressed? Lighten up, you’ve been watching way too many of those white teen movies.
Seeing a psychologist? You’re weak and should probably stop that before the neighbours find out.
Upon realizing this broader picture, Maela decided to turn a personal project into an opportunity for advocacy. By sharing his poetic photos on social media, in galleries, and beyond, he wants those struggling with depression “to know that there is no shame” in voicing your stories, “only an opportunity.” An opportunity to change the way we confront mental illness by breaking the silence for others.
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We spoke to Maela over email to understand the beginnings of “Abstract Peaces” and where his advocacy is headed:
What motivated you to create “Abstract Peaces”? Was there a singular moment that sparked the series?
“Abstract Peaces” wasn’t a preconceived idea. I think some media publications may have stated otherwise. In fact, it was never supposed to be a body of work or planned out. This was [about] a person who was trying to breath during a very difficult time, trying to find themselves, trying to make sense of their struggle. And what they found was peace.
Closer inspection of the work shows you an emotional and spiritual progression, the way the images start out with a sense of hopelessness and progresses to a more optimistic outlook on life.
I think the moment it all came to life was the day I was discharged from hospital after five days of numerous testing and no diagnosis for a recurring chest pain. I spent a lot of time reflecting on my life in the face of uncertainty – if I die here tonight, would I have done anything I loved? – and I picked up a camera and shot my first actual image. Realizing that I could tell an entire story in a frame, I then began to diarize my journey visually. But I never thought the work would amount to anything more than a personal release.
Why do you think mental illness is misunderstood in black communities?
I’ve been trying to move away from the phrase “mental illness” of late. It’s a bit loaded and suggestive that a person is sick. I think it’s more of a mental condition, the way a person’s mind works and ticks. Society gets uncomfortable when they don’t understand something, resorting to boxes and labels, checklists and symptoms of a deviation from the norm.
The black community is a proud and strong one. One that has very little room for weakness, especially with a hyper-masculine gaze. Lest we forget, homosexuality can still be seen as a form of weakness today and it’s something we don’t speak about, or stand for or with, either. Mental health isn’t far from it. Its representation in our history and literature depicts it as a curse ― kings going mad, geniuses losing their minds, the sickly too ― that it’s no surprise that this heirloom has been passed down so effortlessly from generation to generation.
If you don’t speak about it then it doesn’t exist, I guess. But it does. And families that have to care for someone with a condition are looked down on and rarely get support from the community. African belief systems are very different to those in the West. We don’t chalk mental issues down to a science, but rather from a traditional and cultural point of view. This is partly, probably, the reason we see the stigmas prevalent in African diasporas all over the world, not only in Africa. But a lot of that has been changing globally over the years, even here at home, where we have organizations like the South Africa Depression and anxiety group that hopes to raise awareness around the topic and help those in need.
You describe depression as “an opportunity to face oneself,” explaining that this is a result of “going to places you hate the most about yourself and finding beauty.” Can you elaborate on this?
Depression is a symptom of a larger condition. Anyone can get depressed in our world with so much going on around us. It’s a categorical dissatisfaction with the quality of life you’re living. If you feel unaccomplished at 22, you may get depressed. If you feel like you can’t wear the latest designer brands, but your friends and Twitter followers are, you might get depressed. If you feel like you’re not doing what you love, you may feel depressed. Sometimes some people stay in it longer than most. You become disenchanted with your reality that the truth about who you really are at that moment becomes too much to bear.
For most people this is a terrible thing, and it’s not rocket science why one would agree, but as usual there is a second perspective to that, and that is the perspective we should all try to see. If you feel that something needs changing in your life, ask yourself what that might be. What would you rather be doing? What makes you happy? Once you’ve kind of figured it out, how can you go about it? Take a shot. Find ways to improve your quality of life.
I remember having one of my first anxiety attacks one night and feeling like everything around me was falling apart, that my life was nothing and meant nothing and would continue to mean nothing. All my fears unmasked themselves, taunting me, but at that moment I realized that fighting these fears made it worse, so I allowed myself to be consumed completely by them and accepted them as a point of navigation rather than a flaw. Now I create work I’m passionate about, the way I want to and engage in activities that fuel my energy rather than drain me. I’m practicing and medicating on self-love.
Some of your images hint at Surrealism, particularly the photos of shark fins and floating umbrellas and smoke. Were you intentionally drawn to Surrealism, or the idea of art reflecting the unconscious mind?
I’ve always been drawn to the abstract. Straight lines and defined edges make me nervous (haha). I never really had friends my age and always had a problem with authority. As an eccentric child, my mind always ran away with me and I got bored easily, so in high school I found comfort in reading Einstein’s books on relativity, writing poetry, listening to jazz, playing chess and romanticizing the fantasy of a lunch date with Salvador Dalí and Nikola Tesla. My dreams are so vivid, too, sometimes I can’t tell whether I’m dreaming or not and a lot of my work draws inspiration from them.
So this form of expression comes very natural to me. In fact, I find it harder to take a normal portrait or digest a mundane reality represented in a more normal looking piece of art or work. I also feel that this form of expression allows you to break the boundaries of reality and tap into the unseen. An element that mankind has lost sight of amidst the race to get to the top. It’s a science that requires precision to make the ambiguous slightly more tangible and comprehensible.
You mentioned in an interview with Hyperallergic that the act of showcasing your series in a gallery ― a traditionally white space ― might not be the best way to raise awareness of mental conditions in black communities. Have you thought more about where you would take your series if not a gallery or museum?
Yeah, for sure. It’s been on my mind for the longest time, because presenting a body of work is good and well but what are the actions to change that status-quo?
I’m still learning, as you can imagine. I’m meeting more people like me and being out there is still very new for me. We’re starting to think outside of the series, as a matter of fact. I don’t think contemporary and poetic representation is going to cut it if change is to happen. Don’t get me wrong, the body of work has had an impact in raising awareness and giving a lot of people the courage to step up, but the root is structural and in the communities.
Some friends of mine and I have been trying to put together a short visual that documents normal faces we walk past in society every day, people we would never suspect to be living with a mental condition and asking what if they were? Would you look past everything they have done, who they are, based on that one factor?
We are hoping that this will be shared with students, schools and mainstream media, to educate the youth early on. And we will be looking for ways to collaborate with those that have already been working toward the same end. But it’s still very early stages and we are not rushing ourselves for the sake of relevance. The youth is already talking and acting, but I am not under any illusions, there is still so much to be done and collaboration within the black community will be key.