Woodstock-based photographer and screen writer Tsoku Maela, 27, is used to looking at the world and its issues through a lens, but when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder he found himself looking inwards.
Mr Maela, who is originally, from Limpopo started his academic career in 2007 when he enrolled at UCT to pursue a bio-chemistry degree. He opted to study bio-chemistry to research alternative methods of treatment for the HIV/Aids.
“I grew up in a culture that predominantly uses herbal medications. In my culture, most people, know every plant and their function,” he said.
However, while he was at UCT, he started to notice a shift in his behaviour.
“I felt out of place as a person of colour coming into a huge institution filled with students from various provinces.
“Writing screenplays and scripts started to take precedence over my academic responsibilities. My sister suggested I see a psychologist at UCT and get a letter explaining why I wasn’t doing so well academically.”
He went to see a therapist “jokingly, half-jokingly” hoping to get the letter.
“As the sessions became more intense and deeper, we started to notice a pattern of behaviour in the way that I was thinking. We discovered that I was going through something ‘for real’ and it wasn’t just that I was using my writing to escape from my academic obligations.”
He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on medication, but he found it numbed him so he sought other ways to manage his illness.
“Now I employ self-study, which is basically introspection, and I try to be aware of how and why I feel certain things.
“If I find myself in a situation where I feel anxious, I would ask myself what is it about the situation that is making me feel anxious rather than run away from it. It’s very difficult to stay in the moment and try to assess it rationally, but the more I do it the easier it becomes,” he said.
Reading an article on hip hop artist HHP’s struggle with depression earlier this year inspired him and his latest body of work, Abstract Peaces, which focuses on the stigma around mental illness in black communities.
“Many people were commenting negatively about his illness telling him that if he wanted to die, he should just do it and that really upset me. I had this body of work, Broken Peaces, that I wanted to bring out, but I was afraid that people would label or stigmatise me as an artist for suffering from a mental illness, and I didn’t want my career to end before it even started.”
In 2010, after three years at UCT, he took a sabbatical and stayed with family in Johannesburg. The following year, he returned to Cape Town and enrolled at the South African School of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance (AFDA) in Observatory and graduated with a BA degree in script writing and film directing in 2014.
“At AFDA, I not only got the opportunity to write but also to learn more about the medium of film,” he said.
To date, he has completed four bodies of work, Broken Things, Abstract Peaces, Barongwa and Appropriate. He also wrote and directed the short-film, Confluence, screened at the Mercedes-Benz Bokeh Fashion Film Festival in July.
“ I was approached to do a film for the very talented designer, Liam Power. He created a clothing range inspired by the African aesthetic, and what I like about his work is that he did not borrow from African patterns. He actually went and studied the nuances of the African culture.”
Another achievement for the artist was having Broken Things exhibited at the Lagos Photo Festival last month.
The new year, will see Mr Maela, take up residency at Amplify Studio in Loop Street in the CBD from Friday January 20 to Thursday March 23.
“As an artist in residency I will write a thesis and shoot a short film fully funded by the studio. I will continue with the second instalment of
Broken Things. The first one dealt with self-love and embracing your flaws as part of your design, as opposed to obstacles you have to overcome. The second part will look at the structure of the black family and how economic and social landscapes have shaped the African family structure. It will also look at pride, fragile masculinity and South Africa’s rape culture,” he said.
Mr Maela offers some advice to those suffering with a mental illness: “I want to tell people that they should not subscribe to the uninformed world telling you that you are ‘crazy’. I don’t want people to romanticise their condition. They are not crazy, their mind ticks differently; they are inspired by different things and shouldn’t close themselves off to that way of thinking. And, through introspection and understanding, they will uncover their true potential.”
Overridingly, he wants people to know that: “Our anatomies are the same but our brains are inspired by different things.”