A creative compulsion to question taboos


The images that Tsoku Maela takes are unsettling. “The focus of my work is to create engaging conversations that we think are a taboo,” he says. In his 2016 series, Abstract Peaces, the photographer created a visual diary of a person in different stages of depression. Through stark, surrealist imagery, he conveyed feelings of solitude and disconnection. It was Maela’s way of tackling his own mental health issues, but his work had a greater effect. During an exhibition, Maela encountered a man who had been contemplating suicide. Seeing Maela’s photos made him realise how much his pain restricted him. That day, he chose to live. That’s the power of Maela’s work.

His subsequent projects have been equally thought-provoking. While in conversation with his mother about her experiences during apartheid, Maela questioned what liberation means in current times. He began creating images based on the belief that while people are politically free, it is possible to be consciously and socially held back by expectations. With his latest series, Be Glad U R Free, Maela hopes to encourage radical thinking. “It’s up to creatives to rewrite our African narratives,” Maela says. The subjects in his images and the way they’re portrayed are a controversial, yet deliberate choice. “I believe that it’s easy for us to not fight, but build on our history to find the positives through the pain,” Maela says.

These photographs are a way in to difficult but necessary conversations, be it about politics, identity, or mental health. They confront, challenge, and change you. “I hope that when people see my images, they will find the space within themselves to interrogate their own existence,” Maela says, “to realise they’re not beholden to these structures and that they are able to redefine themselves.” His art is an essential reminder that while we shouldn’t forget our past or our struggles, it should never hold us back from striving for inner freedom.