Mental illness is a misunderstood condition spanning countries and cultures across the world. Because it is not outwardly visible, mental illness is often underplayed or neglected as a “first world” problem. Any person with depression who has been told to “just cheer up” can attest to this fact.
South African artist and photographer Tsoku Maela hopes to lift the stigma of mental illness, especially for black communities. With his latest series, called “Abstract Peaces,” Maela takes a series of self portraits that shed light on his own depression and anxiety. It chronicles his personal quest to find peace with his mental illness and, in doing so, has sparked a larger conversation on the topic.
The project consists of 22 highly conceptual works: a visual diary that moves through the stages and struggles that people with mental illnesses experience day-to-day. Surreal portraits with recurring imagery of flowers and birds express great depth: beauty, bravery, and fear all at once.
In an interview with Maela by Hyperallergic, Maela talks about the project in detail. It took a while for him to understand what he was creating. Once he did, he decided to be open and honest about the issue and see where it led. “I thought this was an African problem, but people from different countries started saying the same things,” he said. “It’s been really eye-opening to see that it’s an issue in African diasporas all over the world.”
Maela is referring to the fact that though mental illness is equally common among all races, it is underreported among black people. For socio-economic and historical reasons, people of color often under more psychological duress and have difficulty accessing the help they need.
Of his own experience and upbringing, Maela said “For someone to come out and say ‘I’m struggling with mental illness,’ the first response would probably be ‘Well, you study too hard.’ In African popular culture, you see these strong males who are supported by women, and that is really what happens in our communities. So it’s difficult for anyone to come out and say they are struggling.”
Since publishing “Abstract Peaces,” Maela’s biggest struggle has been getting his message across to people of color and South Africans in particular. As a result, he’s taking his art to the streets in the hope of reaching those who might not think to enter a gallery.