Tsoku Maela can best be described as a merchant of nightmares.
“Most of us are afraid of the dark because that is the one place where we are left to our own devices. When the lights go off, all you have is your imagination — I see that as a chance to create. I choose to create light in those dark spaces,” the South African photographer told me when I first interviewed him in 2016.
Maela first garnered the art world’s attention with his 2015 photo essay, Broken Things: a series about self-love and accepting that we are more than the body parts that keep us together. But it was Abstract Peaces, a body of work that reflects his struggle with depression and anxiety that caught the mainstream’s attention. Through a series of vivid, Photoshop-assisted surrealist images, Maela took his audience into a deeply terrifying but altogether beautiful world of light and dark.
Auxin, is a picture that for example, captures the quiet violence of depression. It features a masked Maela with a plucked rose lying just out of reach. Half-drenched in darkness and light, with his body striking a contemplative pose, the picture seems to suggest that living with depression means knowing that beauty, light, a moment of reprieve, are close but not close enough.
Beleaguard, which is taken from the same series, has a subtext that is easy to read: It features Maela with brooding clouds above him in a sea of sharks. A set of unfurled umbrellas float around aimlessly in the air in a picture that’s equal parts beautiful and nightmarish.
“It was never my intention to release a body of work that challenges the stigma of mental illness,” he recalls of Abstract Peaces. “That was just a personal documentation of my own struggles with depression and was released out of necessity.”
There are clear parallels between the work of the late American author Hubert Selby Jr and Maela’s. Like Selby Jr, Maela ventured into the arts after hospitalisation that left him broke but awakened his artistic calling. And like Selby Jr, Maela’s work deals both with spiritual and existential turmoil without devolving into sanctimony or caricature.
“I spent a week in hospital after sudden chronic chest pain. I had a battery of tests performed on me but they found nothing. By the doctor’s account, I was fine. On the last day, as I was preparing to be discharged, I spoke to a man I’d been sharing the ward with. He was a refuge who told me had left his country because there’d been a war there. He told me he wanted to be an architect; that he wanted to use his hands to build, not destroy. That moment felt regenerative. I knew I was going to pick my camera up immediately after that.”
Maela used what he had: a bedroom in Woodstock, Cape Town, his window for lighting, an entry-level camera plus kit lens, and a stack of books for a tripod.
But if his entré into the arts was semi-autobiographical, his subsequent work has cast the lens on society. B Glad U R Free, his 2017 photo series interrogated the politics that make up post-apartheid South Africa. His most recent photo-series, Book of Maskuline, frames masculinity as a religion. The accompanying text, written in the form of the epistle, maps out the masculine precepts.
“In the beginning of the brown household, the Father spoke, and his word was final. His son listened and practiced his Father’s word, worshipping at the altar of masculinity.”
Sins of The Father, one of the images in the series, features two headless versions of Maela sitting opposite each other. One carries, a bible and the other a set of flowers. But what really makes the picture unsettling are the small details the South African photographer embellishes the photo with. A wrinkled hand, unattached to any visible body, rests on his lap. A luridly coloured wall, cracked and adorned with religious imagery, is an intentional stylistic choice: the morbid always coexists with the beautiful in Maela’s universe.
Indeed, headless bodies have become something of a leitmotif in Maela’s work. Both versions of At My Own Knees (another set of images in Book of Maskuline) feature a decapitated Maela with flowers in his hands and a trio of limbs on his lap. This, in some ways, is reminiscent of how American writer Ta Nehisi Coates uses the phrase “black bodies” in his epistolary memoir, Between the World And Me. It’s a device used to show how specific forms of oppression reduce people to nothing but a sum of body parts.
But, unlike Coates, hope always hangs on the horizon of Maela’s nightmarish dreamscapes. Book of Maskuline’s message is about one of religion’s central themes: redemption. “We are constantly confronted by three versions of self: who we are, who we think we are and who the world thinks we are. If you can, choose the first of the three,” the series ends. Masculinity is a self-constructed societal convention. And, like most things, it can easily be burned or rehabilitated. Its precepts aren’t final.
This is also the larger theme surrounding Maela’s work: everything can be reimagined. With his Photoshop-assisted surrealism, the Limpopo-born photographer literally bends the world to his will. Space and physics are rendered mute in his oeuvre; the paranormal lives alongside the mundane and nightmares are inverted into the things of beauty.
Whether he’s trying to show the beauty in the broken, the light that comes with depression, or the simultaneous nervous and regenerative condition of religion, Maela is an artist deeply obsessed with balance. And, like most artists, he sees his discipline as a way to let some air into the world’s wounds.
“I see art as a calling to heal people. After I released Abstract Peaces, I’ve never felt that initial chest pain again. But more than that I think when you create things, your work teaches you about yourself. There isn’t a single photo I’ve taken that hasn’t taught me something about myself.”