Photographer TSOKU MAELA, who suffers from manic depression and anxiety, has visually interpreted the different stages of depression in a photo series called “Abstract Peaces”. The series aims to challenge the stigma about mental illnesses in the black community. He spoke to Mbali Zwane about the inspiration behind this project.
I’d describe mental illness as an elephant in the room for people of colour. 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 you should probably stop that before the neighbours find out.
If you struggle with depression I’d like you to know that there is no shame, only an opportunity. You may not know when your next breath is coming, but be patient with yourself. Take it one day at a time. I have struggled with manic depression and anxiety my whole life but only recently found the courage to open up about it to my family. They may not understand what it is, but they understand me better as a person. Depression isn’t all doom and gloom; there is so much beauty to be drawn from it. It’s an opportunity to learn about yourself and how your intricate mind works – and the reason why it works the way it does.
Mental illness is one of those issues I felt was completely misunderstood and needed to be re-addressed. What I’ve found is that the stigma not only exists in African communities within Africa, but African diasporas all over the world. Once we get over that hurdle, I think we need to look into how the pharmaceutical industry is profiting off the sedation and isolation of patients instead of helping integrate into society. If you don’t think it’s possible I urge you to look up the story of Mary Barnes. One of the most celebrated artist of the 70s. Also a “recovered” schizophrenic.
I’m still trying to figure out who I am. I consider myself a storyteller first and foremost – constantly on the search for the truth in a world built on lies, obsessed with idol worship and run by exaggerated consumerism. My fascination is with the soul of a person – not what you look like, how much money you have or who you hang out with – but the part of you, you only embrace in your solitude. The beauty we hide from the world fearing judgement.
A little over a year ago I ran towards darkness and started venturing into photography. It was the best decision of my life. I began a body of work titled “Abstract Peaces”, a visual diary of a person during different states of depression. The visual representation of depression is the final product of a process of immersing oneself in the character. Running towards the dark and allowing my triggers, fears and anxiety to consume me. It’s a really exhausting process because the lows of manic depression sometimes mean you’re not sleeping at all or not much at night, whereas the mania [highs] can turn you into a really excitable egomaniac. Being able to face myself and going with the tide instead of against it has helped me deal with the episodes better. I’ve grown to love and appreciate myself more.
This body of work is a result of going to places I hate the most about myself and finding beauty there. The objective of it is conversation. I’m hoping that more people who live with mental conditions will find the courage, to not only be open about it to those they care about, but to love themselves and realise that it’s not “illness”. The real illness here is ignorance. Your dreams are valid and you’re more than capable of doing anything you set your mind to. Some of the greatest pioneers the world has seen in its tumultuous history were living with a mental condition and still changed the world. Don’t run away from it but spend time and learn about yourself.
We have to start nurturing positive ideas of mental conditions. You can’t love Salvador Dali and his works without loving Salvador Dali and his madness. In the same way, you can’t love your brother, sister or friend without loving all of them. Do not underestimate how extremely difficult it is living with someone who has a mental condition (alas, there are many of them), and I appreciate the strength of every single person who wakes up to show support for their loved ones and those under their care. But it would be a crime for me to paint mental conditions in a single shade. Positive representation is important and there are many positives to be drawn from mental illness.
If there are any people working in the mental health field in local communities, trying to raise funds for facilities and treatment, I’m willing to making every single piece of my work available to help raise funds or spread awareness. It’s not much, but someone might need it.
As told to Mbali Zwane