Finding Love in the Heart of Darkness : Interview with Tsoku Maela By Christopher Ian Lutz

Finding Love in the Heart of Darkness : Interview with Tsoku Maela By Christopher Ian Lutz

By Christopher Ian Lutz

People often wonder how we can solve the problems happening throughout the world. In fact, many people become disheartened due to being overwhelmed by the amount of suffering within their community. Where does one begin to understand how to diagnose and prescribe solutions to the world’s suffering?

Through the art of Tsoku Maela we learn that before we can begin to navigate the darkness of the world and to heal others, we must first learn to navigate our own darkness and to heal our self. Within just two years the Limpopo-born photographer currently based in Cape Town, South Africa has developed four major bodies of work, including two exhibitions at 99 Loop Gallery, that depict the artist’s healing process and journey of self-discovery. 

As art is a reflection of one’s surroundings, not only do we see in Maela’s work the healing process of the individual, we see the healing process of South Africa, and humanity at large. The heart of that healing process is the reclaiming of one’s power.

For those of us who have not seen Cape Town, how would you describe its culture?

I’ve had to learn and continue to learn about the culture that exists and evolves in Cape Town as a native of the Limpopo Province. That place is far different to Cape Town but draws a striking resemblance to its serenity. Cape Town is a bit more complex though because if I were to indeed speak of its culture we would not be speaking of the same Cape Town you see on your brochure or travel magazine commercials. That’s a forgery. The culture of the real Cape Town is that of a grounded and loving people who still believe in a sense of community. When I moved here a family took me in as one of their own even though I was only a tenant. I felt at home away from home and I recognized that, because people from my hometown in Lebowakgomo would’ve done the same for another.

Cape Town is increasing its tourism, it has the prominent art scene in South Africa, and with such things as the internet making it accessible worldwide how are you seeing this impact local culture? 

Yes this is true, the city’s biggest priority has been tourism, but just like inflation has an impact on food prices and the population’s psychology and faith in those elected to look out for their best interests, art rises out of a necessity to express whenever there is a frustration from voices unheard. So really what we are witnessing is a culture that is growing from gentrified suburbia in its most raw form to a more sophisticated palette for the contemporary audience in the middle to upper echelons of the city.  It’s definitely booming and we are seeing a lot of young people expressing themselves through the arts, the once unconventional is now the cool and marketable. More and more entrepreneurs are coming out of the city.

Would you say that South Africa is going through a process of modernization? Are South African heritages at a risk of losing their traditions as they become ‘modernized’?

Who built the Pyramids? The architects from China and Dubai or the Egyptians?

The etymology of the word itself suggests that we are speaking of things that are now or today, yet when we speak of the Pyramids we speak of pre-historic. Are they not still with us? Are they not modern monuments if not timeless? The word, in the context that we have been taught to use as a pre-dating instrument, would then suggest that modernity is a form of de-evolution. We’ve ventured into space (something ‘ancient’ tribes never had to do to understand the cosmos) but we haven’t built our own pyramids yet. So, in the context of the former definition, yes South Africa and Africa at large is going through a process of modernization but our traditions and heritage are only at risk if we subscribe to the notion of modernity as ‘better’ than our ‘pre-historic’ traditions. Tradition, just like the pyramids and good art, stands the test of time as a collective of ideas and core human value in an effort of love. That’s the reason it’s important for us the new generation of artists to preserve and portray correctly in our work.

How does modernization influence South African contemporary art?

Art fairs are very interesting places to be of late as we are starting to see the need for authentic African voices thanks to the transparency that is social media where appropriation is constantly under a microscope. African stories can no longer be told or be credible when told by non-African artists. So more and more artists of color have been celebrated this year and previous as a result because our stories are being documented through the lens of firsthand experience. 

What are the struggles being faced that you see, especially in black communities that from my understanding are struggling due to marginalization even in post-apartheid?

We don’t see struggle. It’s not a word we use. Understanding that our destiny isn’t defined by circumstance. Circumstances that weren’t of our choosing or our ancestors choosing, rather pre-existing conditions to keep us behind, yet we prove time-and-time again that you can’t keep us down. So what you may call struggle is now something we see as opportunity and that took a change in mindset. We are no longer reactive, but proactive. #FeesMustFall, when it started, and the hair debacle at San Souci weren’t reactions to these pre-existing conditions, but rather an act of reform, in other [cooler] words ‘carving a new lane’. We are no longer asking for permission, we are actively telling our stories and reclaiming our lives and place in society. 

So if ever there was a struggle, it wouldn’t be that of a monetary or political nature, but rather that of the mind. The mindset, which the younger generation has interrogated and found to be flawed, the older generation still holds onto out of fear. It’s our duty to educate and make them understand that we are not burning down the country but rather making them aware of the ills they have had to endure and their destructive ripples that echo into the next generation. They thought playing along would be best for their children, but it turns out to be a massive disservice to all of us.

A customary vote just won’t do. As you said before tourism is on the up and up in Cape Town, but have you seen the squatter camps in Khayelitsha? There’s enough money in the budget for affordable infrastructure, but more and more bike lanes pop up in the city. 

This is what ‘asking’ got the older generations. So what’s the new one going to do? Ask?

An obstacles one faces on the journey of self-discovery is division. In what ways is South Africa socially divided, and how does that have an effect on the individual?

Race is still a very sensitive topic here. The Rainbow nation is the poster boy for what seems to be an uncoordinated and misconstrued idea of democracy. We have eleven official languages and from an aerial point of view the country is divided regionally into tribes and cultures and we pride ourselves in those cultures. And it all works, as a concept or an alcoholic beverage advert on television, where this concept comes alive. But the real world is less forgiving and less liberal to variety. 

So you’re correct in saying that one faces division on the journey of self-discovery but not in the contemporary sense of the world of alienation as a form of loneliness, but rather alienation as a form of reflection. Unlearning old habits and understanding yourself and what you’re about, but then we must always come back to continue learning about others and their cultures. In that way we bridge the gap between a people and lay foundations for a harmonious community as a race. Conflicts around the world occur daily because of that misunderstanding of different cultures, but wouldn’t it be easier to walk into a room of a people and know how to address them as per their customs and social values? Yet in South Africa, 4 Xhosa men would sit with one white man and they would all have to speak in English to accommodate a Caucasian that has lived in the same province as them his entire life where the native language is isiXhosa.

So you tell me how that affects the individual.

In what ways is South Africa coming together, and how does that have an effect on the individual?

All hope lies in the new generation. The privileged are starting to understand the extent of the effects the agency through which they heirloom was acquired has had on their counterparts. The underprivileged and middle class person of color has grown less bitter and more proactive. There’s room for collaboration here on levels we are yet to witness. There’s an energy about the new generation that is even getting the politics excited. So there is hope. But it’s all in the youth. And the youth may not have all the resources in the world, but they have each other. But they need guidance. Not interruptions. Only guidance.

As Lady Skollie, a brilliant artist in her own right, once said to me during a conversation, “We are the emotive element for those doing the dirty work in the streets.”

There is a social issue that South Africa and the United States share in common, and that is a fairly recent break from racial segregation. In 1994 apartheid was ruled out in South Africa. Segregation technically was ruled out in America in 1954, but racism is far from over. Is racism still prevalent in South Africa?

Again, the definition of what constitutes as racism has been another one for the books. Racism isn’t white against black or colors vs. colors (that’s segregation), it’s a structural disease that allows privileges for one race over the other. It’s the police stopping you for a ‘spot search’ because you’re black and have dreadlocks, or working your life away for that promotion only for the CEO’s son to graduate, walk in and get the position. It’s the school telling you that your nappy hair is offensive and the difference between being able to rent out a decent place in town and sleeping on a couch for 2 months, because again, you don’t have the nicest Euro accent and your pigmentation concentration is too high. It’s the difference between getting the education you deserve and driving a taxi because generational debt is still mounting and a life of crime never occurred to someone who dreamt of becoming an Astronaut. 

The only thing that we got in 1994 was a customary vote and a brief case. The law still protects white privilege. Gentrification is still legal. The native land act of 1913 is pretty much still in effect in Cape Town, we just call it Gentrification. The law of this country is still racist. 

So from where I’m sitting we all need to acknowledge that: 1) the structure is racist; 2) we are all different, but none of those differences make us better or worse than the next race; 3) we are all human first; 4) each one teach one.

But the structure must first change, if it resists, which it has been, the results are as mentioned in the previous questions.

Africa has long been a resource for Western countries that to this day mine natural resources. The commercial art industry has also reached out to every nook and cranny of the globe, and with tools such as social media that has an inherit tendency to absorb individuality into a mass consciousness, how do African artists maintain their individuality and prevent colonization from the Western art market, while at the same time engage an international audience?

The technology industry in the West is virtually non-existent without Congo. Had to get that out first and foremost haha. 

The art industry is in an interesting place right now where a lot of strong subject matters that use African aesthetic and culture are by artists from Africa represented by white spaces. There’s nothing wrong with that, we can collaborate on getting these stories out to wider audiences, but we also have to create our own spaces to accommodate our people who feel misplaced at whitewashed galleries at times because the work is about and for them.

This is the part where the artist needs to be held accountable as we all have a choice on our journeys. If your art gets ‘colonized’ by the Western Market, then to an extent you would be at fault. But we should not shun collaborators or spaces from abroad if it means exposing the truth in the work to a different crowd of people, we should also not see them as saviors or better than us. Else we will always water down the message and sell it for less than it is worth. Realize that the power is literally in our hands. If they don’t give you a platform, create one.

What space are you trying to meet the audience where borders, race, nationality, and culture are transcended?

Honestly I’m just trying share information and drive conversations where I feel there’s a lack of. As with any form of art the point is to remind the people of their humanity and challenge mindsets. For people to think outside of popular consensus and conventions. Question everything! Why are you an outcast when you’re mentally ill? Why are we so afraid of imperfection even though perfection is a man-made construct? Why have we not discussed the spiritual aspect of the human when talking about growth and attaining or defining success? All these works have a universal voice but come from a personal place of a person self-studying within society with conflicting ideas. But they connect because we’ve all thought about these things but we are all afraid of the dialogue or the first step.

Your photographic journey began two years ago after a serious medical situation. Thereafter you were inspired to take up photography. What structures in your life fell in order for you to walk this new path as an artist?

You know I always speak of the life after hospitalization but never really the profound alignment of events that took place before that. I’d actually worked as an intern for a clothing store where I met two amazing black photographers at the time, but they weren’t shooting as much anymore. Their images looked like everything I’d hoped photography would, like a still from a movie. Everything else about the medium was boring to me. It looked so…lame. Everyone always posing and smiling…so perfect. At the moment their images piqued my interest only to start shooting images of my own later in the year.

For the world to consider you an artist and for you to consider yourself an artist are two different things and I’m yet to reach that level where I think of myself as an artist. That’s something I didn’t think or know about before I started capturing images and creating them. But in truth, I had been creating my whole life, piecing together experiences and memories that are now being reflected in the works that got me this interview.  I’ve had to learn so much as each image represents a layer peeled back in myself to discover something else. I’ve learned to detach from previous ideologies I had of myself and the public when I need to. I’ve also learned to trust my inner voice and practice patience. 

In your series Abstract Peaces you addressed the issue of the lack of understanding mental health, especially in black African communities. What should people know about mental illness to help see it in a more positive light?

People are afraid of being called or associated with the word ‘crazy’. Yet I find it ironic that the world is laid to waste by people in suits and degrees from Ivy League institutions, yet those with a brain that works differently and probably experience life on a different frequency, without blame, are the crazy ones. 

Mary Barnes lived with schizophrenia in the 1960’s and painted the walls of Kingsley Hall with her faeces until the doctors gave her a paintbrush. She went on to become one of the most famous artists of her time. So you see, crazy is just a word we label things we don’t understand, but these aren’t the crazy ones. They communicate and think differently. We need to help them find a way to do that instead of making them feel inferior or sick and pumping them with pills every day to keep them under control. It’s not enough.

In a society that highlights perfections through things such as social media, self-acceptance seems to be more difficult for the individual who strives for perfection. How do we reverse this issue and find self-love again?

Perfection, as an idea, is a man-made construct and understanding that is the beginning of our healing. Even as a man-made construct it’s also highly subjective, which makes it an unreliable convention as the media has tried to sell to us over and over again. We should draw lessons from nature in the pursuit of perfection. The golden ratio and sacred symmetry of its design seem to suggest that it’s all converging towards something but in that convergence appeared structure – therefore perfection would then not be defined by the end product but the process of making that product. So the two (product process) become one.

So how do we find self-love? The French would say Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner – to understand all is to forgive all – meaning in this case that we are unable to fully accept ourselves as complete because we don’t know half as much about ourselves as we do about our friends or other people’s lives. We are always comparing ourselves to someone else. Social media platforms even have a word for it ‘FOMO’ – fear of missing out. And social media is packed with people flaunting fake lifestyles and affluence while sleeping on a couch or in their cars at night. I’ve seen a lot of those in this industry. Persona and personality are not to be confused with the true self. Persona is a mask you wear to project an image, but your true self will always knock, asking for attention and you will feel it. To be yourself and be in love with yourself should feel effortless like a duck gliding on the lake surface. 

Spend time with yourself. Solitude and loneliness are two different things.

In Appropriate you address the appropriation of African culture. This idea reminds me a lot of how it is common in America for white people to appropriate the fashion, music, language, and culture of some black subcultures. How are you seeing African culture being appropriated by foreign cultures?

There’s a company right here, actually, that represents a microcosm of the problem. They claim to be pro-African stories by telling positive and uplifting news from black communities. But as a white owned company they rarely ever go into the communities themselves but send their videographers of color, you see haha. They will take photographs of the people in what at first seems to be a positive representation but it’s nothing if not poverty porn. They get sponsorship from the biggest camera brands to continue their work because who doesn’t love some good ol’ poverty porn? Cape Town is thee hub of cultural appropriation. I’ve lost count of all the ‘African markets’ and stores owned by Europeans selling African heritage back to African people in Africa. 

The two words ‘cultural appropriation’ couldn’t be more apt. It’s you saying, “It’s suddenly okay to be this and that because now is good for me”. It goes beyond just selling or wearing a cultural piece.

You celebrated your heritage in your last solo exhibition was Barongwa: I am that I am at 99 Loop Gallery in Cape Town. Could you explain what is Barongwa? 

Barongwa translates to ‘Guardian angels’ or ‘Sent ones’ from Northern Sotho and through this series I wanted to explore man reaching self-actualization on a spiritual level manifesting through the physical by using phases from old spiritual texts to explain the progression. I also wanted to show a lot of what we know from organized religion is half-truths, and that the texts are saying pretty much the same thing if not more info from each. The translation of Hebrew texts to modern English means that a lot was lost in translation. The writers used to embed code and symbolism in the texts that we as the public do not have to day. We live on blind faith believing that God is a man in a robe in the sky, a narcissistic and all-loving, all-forgiving being that might flood an entire planet if he wakes up on the wrong side tomorrow.

For example, ‘The creation of man’ image sparked a bit of controversy as I had a female subject as the God figure – but that wasn’t the point you see – I was depicting energy in the form of male and female energy, in the presence of light and sound. Creation. But we refuse to explore the Gnostics while science and philosophy are closer to each other in thought than they have ever been before. String theory sounds like a revelation but it’s been something the Zen practice has spoken of – vibrations and frequencies and chakras. These are not separate ideas.

For me, finding true success and peace was when I embarked on a journey to find my own truth outside of popular thought.

In your first works you found beauty within yourself. In your series Broken Things you found beauty in another person. In Barongwa what are you finding beauty and acceptance in?

In contentment. I used to think that meant I was without want, that I couldn’t be ambitious. But you can be ambitious in contentment because to be content means to practice gratitude. And I am grateful for the way my life has turned out, even the dark times don’t feel as dark anymore. The plan I had for my life didn’t pan out, it stuttered and petered out in the most brilliant way, yet everything amazing that’s happened to me is something I had not planned, but I mused and entertained the thought of it.

In places where people do not have opportunities such as educational scholarships or platforms to share their artwork it can discourage them from pursuing their dreams. What would you tell these individuals who are facing the challenges of having limited resources?

People may not see the work but your work matters because you matter. You don’t have to reach 10,000 people. One is enough. That light might go one to light up many more. Most importantly understand that your work teaches you things about you that you would’ve never known, so pay attention to that and grow into your next transformation. 

Above all, create not only with intent but with love.

You are a photographer, filmmaker, and screenwriter. Are there any upcoming projects that you wish to share with us?

Phew, a few things are definitely in the pipeline but as always in no rush. I’ll be doing my first residency with Amplify studios in Cape Town next year and showing Broken Things at photo17 in Switzerland in January. There is a film in the works that has been growing visually and maturing over the years but I think I’ve said too much haha.


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