Tsoku Maela

Tsoku Maela



Appropriate III: Matebele Live Here

In 1883, the Ndzundza Ndebele clan were defeated in a war against President Paul Kruger’s Afrikaansche Republiek Army and seized their ancestral farmland, placing Ndzundza families on Boer farms to work as indentured labour for a minimum of five years. Ndebele families, who until then, had lived in villages, were now isolated from one another and forced to confront the fundamental question of keeping their traditions alive when they had been taken from their ancestral land. Inspired by the sophisticated design of their beaded aprons, the Ndebele women developed an architectural style that made the individual family home a village and a symbol that showed that “the Ndebele lived here.” Ndebele art was brought to the world’s attention in the 1940s through the work of photographers like Constance Stuart Larrabee. Ironically, the apartheid government actively encouraged the painting and even went so far as to create cultural villages, which served as an advertisement for so-called tribal purity. In the end, economics has done what politics could not: As more and more Ndebele have been forced to work in cities, their culture and traditions have been gradually diluted.

A Ndebele bride will often be seen wearing the very popular item known as the Umbahlo blanket or ikombese (from the Afrikaans ‘kombers’, which means blanket). She will also wear copper brass rings known as idzila around her arms, legs and neck, as symbols of the bond she shares with her husband. The abundance of ornaments and jewellery, common in most traditional African attire, symbolises the Ndebele woman’s status in society. The neck beads and neckpieces are handmade and can cost 1000 ZAR and above, as this is the only way for most of the older members of the indigenous groups to make money. However, very few remain who can still make diaparo tsa setso (traditional clothing). “When we die, who will teach our children? They don’t want to know. When we die, our children will stay not knowing. Retailers stock things that I make but then don’t know what they mean. They just sell them because they want business. I know the history. When I dress my customers, I tell them what each item means and who it’s meant for.”

‘Appropriate II’

Many African creatives have found a way to tap into the monetising of their culture as seen through the European gaze. One doesn’t need to wander too far to see this dynamic in play. A walk through the bustling V&A Waterfront or the serene Green Market Square in Cape Town paints a vivid portrait of abnormal normality. Tourists with their cell phones and video cameras out, capturing the ‘true essence’ of Africa – traditional dancers in loin cloths and animal skins thumping on their drums. It’s all very entertaining. However, on the receiving end of that gaze are fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who use their craft to make a living. A craft that draws inspiration, in style and aesthetic, from their sacred traditions.

There is a very thin line between ‘appreciation’ and ‘appropriation’. I decided to create a series, which explores the monetising or ridiculing of the African aesthetic and culture through the foreigner’s gaze. However, it is a two-way street and I maintain an objective point of view. Witnessing these over the top culturally-inaccurate performances,  it is degrading to the average middle-class African. This goes beyond street performers, media appropriation and the slander of African culture. It’s also about African artists who sell their stories for a penny – either to get recognised, stay relevant or break into the industry.

One cannot truly blame tourists and expats for their ideas of Africa at large, but rather where they get their information from. The media’s idea of Africa is something ‘we’ as Africans can change, thanks to the hypervisibility of social media and alternative media. By telling our stories we can change perspectives and ageing narratives. We cannot rely on anyone else as young Africans but ourselves. We have to take pride in our cultures and not wait for the world to agree. I keep wondering if there’s room for genuine collaboration, where one group does not feel exploited or used by another. Perhaps companies and brands that use a cultural aesthetic may have to include someone from the culture on the campaign to have an authentic perspective on the world they are trying to reimagine. Representation is important, and people’s lives depend on it. One can never put a price on that.

Appropriate IV: The Last Stand

In 2016, I travelled to Nairobi, Kenya and had an encounter with the local Maasai draped in their traditional, strong and durable Shùka cloth while visiting the national park. They fit the stereotypical brochure description we’ve all come to know and imagine them to be: tall, dark and jump higher than kangaroos. The jump is known as the Adamu. They perch themselves strategically outside the reserve where tourists pay $100 to see wild animals, and realised they could make a quick buck. $10 gets you a participatory jump with the infamous Maasai warrior and surprisingly, many tourists pay it. And jump. Then leave. When the Maasai asked me why I had refused their generous offer, I said: “I’m from Africa, my brothers,” to which they joined in with laughter before we sat and spoke about the different Maasai tribes in Kenya. They did not charge me for that, but the experience sounded like a well-rehearsed sales pitch or oration by a tour guide. These were younger, new generation Maasai who had capitalised on Kenya’s tourist market and, to be fair, probably knew very little of their own history, but tapped into the exoticisation of their culture by a Western gaze.

The tourists favourite Adamu highlights a pivotal moment as part of a series of rituals known as the Eunoto, ceremonies in which junior warriors, or “Morami”, graduate to the ranks of manhood. A notable part of the ceremony is the Emuratta, when the young Maasai are circumcised and required not to flinch, after which they elevate to junior Moran. The young Morani are then moved to a manyatta, an encampment where they can eat and drink in the presence of women as a symbol of their independence. The ceremony may last for about ten days where ritual cow slaughter and alcohol made from fermented roots of aloe and honey may pass the lips of the new warriors for the first time. And only then, the Adamu takes place inside a circle of bodies formed by the Morani, one or two entering at a time, with heels never touching the ground the Morani begin to jump in the presence of song to match the jump. The higher or more graceful the jump, the more appealing they are to the young women looking on. This is perhaps but a facet of a rich Maasai culture that was lost into economical translation, just as it was in 2012 when Louis Vuitton paraded their spring/summer collection of hats and scarves inspired by the Maasai Shúka. Fast-forward to 2018 and most Tanzanian Maasai find themselves homeless in their native Loliondo area as the government favours tourism over culture.



The three: Mind, body and spirit

“The three” is the final stage the process of awakening in “Barongwa”. It is here where the individual self-actualizes and finds harmony between their mind, body and spirit. To be in a constant state of meditation, a constant state of oneness with self. They become the “I am”. A creator of their own reality and destiny through the power of their word.


“Bardo” is the intermediate state and resembles the phases that occur between death and rebirth. During this transition it is said that the soul experiences reality in its clearest for and it is during this time of Bardo that we are confronted by our own fears and projections. It is here where we realize that our demons and limitations are of our own making. We can only ascend to a higher rebirth if we pass through this phase with that revelation: That we have to face ourselves first before we can overcome anything else.




‘What is URS is mine’

Martin Luther King Jr. was once quoted as saying that capitalism as a system does not permit an even flow of economic resources where a privileged few are rich beyond conscience and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. One is inclined to side with Dr King as the romance behind capitalism lies in the prosperity that comes with hard work, yet a quick glance at the world around us shows quite the opposite. The labourer (the blue collar worker), whether part of the industrial enterprise or the manufacturing of products, keeps the system alive but earns significantly less while working in conditions suitable for chattel. They are equally as dispensable in a system that prioritises profit over life.

‘What is URS is mine’ pays tribute to these unsung heroes in our society, not as men, but as Gods. The fathers who leave their families and homes to travel far and deep into the earth to bring back the riches of its womb. The victims in an abusive relationship between profit and freedom. The ghosts of a broken vow. No bullet can harm them anymore. No chain can shackle them anymore. They are above the system and with that power they return to take back what is theirs so that their loved ones and future generations can reap the riches of their labour as was promised in the beginning.

‘Fathers & sons’

The line between hero and villain is blurred by perspective and experience. A villain is defined as a cruelly malicious person involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime. Conversely, a hero is defined as courageous or someone who can be regarded as a role model. Depending on your experience with law enforcement in South Africa or indeed anywhere in the world, your description of the word ‘hero’ or ‘villain’ may vary for the police. If you’re an African (African-American) police may be villains, especially when entering Black neighbourhoods as their presence is hostile and disarming. Slavery is big business. That’s the trading of humans. That’s cheap labour. So what is a system built off the backs of slaves supposed to do when the slaves are freed? Devise other means to incarcerate them in privatized prisons where more profit can be made off their backs.

Perhaps the most sinister part of this tale lies not in the rate of incarceration and criminalisation of the black male body but the militarisation of the public, which has resulted in the senseless killing of innocent civilians. The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement not only highlighted the prevalent issues but also raised an important question on the killing of young black males. Who are we giving guns to? Is the only thing that differentiates police from criminals their uniform? Do they even remember the oath they took to protect and serve the public? It’s no different in South Africa, we are just less vocal about it. Law enforcement brutalises black bodies every single day – my friends and I almost spent a night in jail because a seasoned officer couldn’t tell the difference between a jar of sugar and cocaine. While that happened a security guard lay dead across the street from us. We lack guidance as young men because our mentors are chasing us down in the streets, harassing us at traffic checks and arresting us everyday. Our fathers, wake up to put on a uniform that makes them different from the rest of us, protected by the law, but when it comes off they are just likely to be criminals in the face of the system they protect and work for.  A criminal record literally turns a person into an alien. You cease to exist in a world of sinners and righteous men. Your simply disappear, denounced of any honour or birth right. You become nothing and no one. That’s if you don’t disappear quietly in the system, first.



‘An archivist of a future African past in the present time, I wish not only to preserve but to rewrite the collective memory of blackness across the spectrum of her muddied hues in a language so vivid and worthy of our rebellion. To become, we re-imagine what is and what is not. The edge we once knew to be fear became a springboard for us to leap into the unknown, only so our dreams could learn to fly. Therefore the Afrofuturist dreams in Surrealism’. – Tsoku Maela.

Working predominantly in the medium of photography, Maela’s work concerns itself with the motivations of most societal issues through the observation and study of human behavior and psyche, in hopes of creating a universal understanding of such motivations through dialogue and a unique visual language that borrows from the surrealist and Afrofuturist movement(s). He was born a middle child on the 29thof March, in Lebowakgomo, Limpopo province, South Africa. Tsoku Maela was a dedicated pyromaniac and often pictured as the face of a missing child poster. In an attempt to keep him homebound, his parents sent him to boarding school where he quickly discovered his interest in human behavior, which is a less eerie way of saying he took his people watching particularly seriously. This interest led to him questioning the actions, of persons and organisms, and more or less their motivations. At the age of 17, he enrolled at the University of Cape Town where he pursued his interest in Chemistry and Biochemistry but by the age of 20, he felt disillusioned by the commercialisation of medication and research. He dropped out of university to pursue his interest in writing and directing at a film school, eventually working in the advertising industry as a copywriter and a writer for live television.  This earned him the Standard Bank Rising Star Award in Media & Marketing for his contribution to the medium in 2016.

His venture into photography began in late 2014, after he met a geriatric too old to exist, one-foot-and-a-toe in the grave, who regaled him with the story of his life in exile for disobeying the call of duty during wartime, while sharing a ward at the Christiaan Barnard hospital. “Why did you betray your own country to come here? To this country”, he asked. “Because I wanted to use my hands to build and not to destroy”, the old man replied while he gestured to the many buildings outside and around them that he had designed and helped to build as an architect. On the day of his discharge, too broke to make a decent film, too reclusive to convince anyone to fund him, Maela went home and blew the dust off an old camera he had and decided that he would turn all the stories he had into still images with no particular goal in mind but to make them. He wants to give the stories life, just as he was given a second chance at his own life.

Tsoku is still a people-watching pyromaniac, concerned with the human condition, the visceral, spiritual, socio-economical and geo-political landscapes. The conversations many consider too taboo to grant space and time to – his only desire is to set a fire of love and hope in the heart of anyone who comes across his work. He wants to inspire youthful energy that seeks to create and fight for sustainable change while archiving a beautiful and ever-evolving African past, present and future. His work has been featured on CNN: African Voices, Hyperallergic, VICE, GUP Magazine and Contemporary Art Curator Magazine. His work has been showcased in South Africa, Lagos, Zurich and at Art Basel’s Pulse Miami Beach in the U.S.A. Academically, his work has also been used in student exhibitions in the United Kingdom to raise awareness around mental health. His artworks can also be found in the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, archived as part of their Transition publication.