At just 12 years old, Tsoku Maela penned his first school play to address the effects of a natural disaster on the environment. ‘The story revolved around two families who were at odds with each other over a minor squabble, but the tornado that ripped through their village left them with nothing,’ he explains. ‘They had to collaborate to rebuild and to stay alive, and by doing so grew closer.’ It’s this anecdote that perhaps best sums up what the photographic storyteller is trying to do with his work – an oeuvre that examines human relationships and divides across multiple platforms. ‘We are so much alike in our visceral struggles; no one is better than the next man, only different in thought and application.’ Through various media – from photography to poetry, film and screenplays – Tsoku depicts emotion and experience with striking perception and sensitivity. And as a recent winner of a Standard Bank Rising Star accolade, Tsoku’s just getting started.
One of our Next Generation stars for 2016, we caught up with the artist a year later to find out what he’s been up to since.
Which three words or phrases most accurately describe the past year for you?
Becoming a nöbödï. Agoraphobia. Black madness.
What have been some of the highlights – career-related and otherwise – over the past 12 months?
It’s been the wildest 12 months of my life in all aspects, to be honest. From directing ‘Confluence’, which was shown at Bokeh, to Standard Bank awarding me the ‘Rising star’ award in Media & Marketing. I was named as City Press’s art publication’s ‘Trending’s photographer of the year’, ‘Barongwa’ was listed as part of the final 25 projects for the CAP prize and I showed ‘Broken Things’ in Lagos and Zurich back-to-back. Breaking into Cape Town Art Fair, then Turbine Art Fair, finding my space and creating new work, new representation… I could go on; it seems like most of us are wired to speak about our accolades. I’m grateful for all the nods and support, but these are footnotes.
The most important thing that has happened in that time was working with New York-based startup ‘Akoma’ – founded by former CNN anchor Zain Verjee and colleague Chidi Afulezi – to bring Africa’s first paid fellowship to creatives in Rwanda, Nigeria and Kenya. Mentoring them for six months via video correspondence in writing, filmmaking and photography. There were 25 candidates in total, most of whom had never picked up a camera before, but in the end they were all equipped enough to conceptualise and pitch a branded narrative in front of GEAfrica execs and landing jobs for various media projects. Nairobi is a beautiful place, by the way.
My goal has always been to equip the youth with the right skills to push accurate narratives and to see art translate and impact in the real world as any other industry would. Who knows, perhaps I would’ve never had the opportunity to do it so soon, had it not been for the visibility the work has created for me. But that experience has inspired and changed me for the better.
And what have some of the biggest challenges been?
Besides focusing on my discipline, who I really am and why I gave up a life of comfort, almost on divine impulse, to do what I’ve always felt to be destined for me, no one called in the last year to find out how I was doing.
Somewhere between the congratulations are about 50 to 60 daily mails, calls and messages from people around the world either asking me to help them get over their depression or trying to shadow me to see how I work. My story has been misconstrued ever so slightly by the media as someone who is still battling depression, while in truth I hadn’t been depressed or suicidal since 2012 or medicated since then. All of this has triggered a nostalgic response and I’ve had bouts of depression and social anxiety in-between, even worse than before.
But knowing now what I didn’t then, privileged to be able to create as I am currently, realising that the work represents and stands for something among the youth and the everyday person (not just curators and art snobs), I’ve embraced all of it. ‘Broken Things’ led me down an interesting pathway and social interaction, ‘Abstract Peaces’ broke a culture of silence, even among a lot of artists. It’s almost impossible to remain anonymous in all of that and I’m very much a reclusive dude.
How has your creative work, approach or outlook changed since we last spoke to you?
A collector in France recently took a look at my body of work ‘Be Glad U R Free’, which is due for release on 11 August, and wrote back, ‘The idea is great but sometimes I found it sad that I don’t recognise more your way of working that I really loved in the past two series.’
Everyone loves to quote Nina Simone on the role of the artist – ‘To reflect the times’ – but for me the environment is indicative of the times, thus the artist must be careful to reflect not only the times outside of themselves; there is an ever-changing internal environment that they must also seamlessly represent. So in essence that critique was correct, to a subjective fault.
The last time we spoke I had just released ‘Barongwa: I am that I am’, which aesthetically was a shift from my documentary style [‘Abstract Peaces’, ‘Broken Things’, ‘Appropriate’ ] infused with surreal elements to a more commercially viable contemporary look and feel, easy to curate as well. With ‘Be Glad U R Free’ we threw the style and script out the window, moving into the studio and setting up our scenes, characters and sets with the help of Koketso Mbuli (Canadian Academy Awards nominee make-up artist and stylist).
There was a definite obsession with the spiritual (even in Abstract Peaces) colliding with identity back then. Now it’s spirituality in contemporary and even capitalist culture. The freedom spoken of here has nothing to do with political freedom, but that of the mind. The line between politics and capitalism is virtually non-existent and somewhere along the way human freedom has been lost – the ability to think for ourselves while functioning in a well-oiled machine.
It’s harder to process but I’m more patient with the truth now. There’s difference between knowing and understanding.
What are you busy with at the moment?
I’m working with Mzansi Insider to curate their content andtrying to finish ‘Be Glad U R Free’! It was ready in May, then June, then July, now it isn’t. Serious Dre vibes.
Also trying to navigate Johannesburg, sheesh. Have you seen this place? It’s a giant mall. Trees are going down for more parking space. That branch was Dodo’s parking spot! #StayWoke #BirdsCanParallelToo
And lastly, where do you hope to be or what do you hope to have achieved another year from now?
Nothing and nowhere, to be honest. I don’t spend a lot of time tinkering with personal ambitions, but there are things that have already happened that I can only speak about at an appropriate time. Expect more work.
For now we continue to learn so we can contribute when the time arrives. But I am really excited for the youth of this country and what we can do with them through the arts.
Visit tsokumaela.com for more.