Studio Africa: Tsoku Maela on Photographing Dreams

South African photographer Tsoku Maela talks his new solo show, 'Barongwa: I am that I am,' at 99 Loop in Cape Town.

In the fifth instalment of Okayafrica’s Studio Africa series, Chaze Matakala sits down with South African photographer, director and writer Tsoku Maela.

Cape Town-based visual artist Tsoku Maela uses photography as a medium for channeling his dreams. A necessary albeit reluctant voice in contemporary African art, Maela’s double consciousness comes across in the unashamed ways in which he shares his art.

One of his earlier self-portraits, "Rediscover Not Recreate" (Abstract Peaces, 2014), can be seen on a wall near the De Waal Drive highway, so as to reach those who may not have access to the exclusionary and elite gallery spaces he simultaneously occupies.

Maela’s art has touched on the highly relevant and often neglected issues of mental illness in Black communities, interpersonal relationships and the pitfalls of capitalism in postcolonial Africa–all magnified through a lens of spirituality and selfhood. Maela’s compassioante interpretation and manifestation of these issues has garnered his work much praise and recognition over the past few years, but there is definitely more to this celestial creative.

His latest body of work, Barongwa: I am that I am, tugs at the thread of Sepedi spirituality through a series of five poignant images. By tapping into forms of embodied indigenous knowledge, the images trace a journey to self-actualisation.

“To know yourself is to know the very fabric of the universe,” Maela says of the show, his second solo exhibition at 99 Loop in Cape Town. “That knowledge is passed down by those who came before and watch over us. They are neither man, nor are they God. They are neither here, nor there. They are the guardians or, as we know them, Barongwa.”

We sat down with Maela in the green space of 99 Loop on the opening night of Barongwa.

Photo by Chaze Matakala.

Where were you when Barongwa was first conceived?

Barongwa felt like a life-long project, something that was always meant to happen on this journey of self-discovery. I didn’t think I’d shoot anything after this project; it felt like the final frontier in the stories I’ve been telling thus far: Abstract Peaces, studying the mental aspect of the subject, Broken Things, challenging the view of the self and duality of the subject, Fuck Coca-cola, eat fruits, commenting on an increasingly materialistic society using the analogy of Eve in the Garden and the product as the forbidden fruit.

Barongwa ties all of these in but on a more in-depth spiritual level where I challenge everything we have been taught of our existence since the beginning of time while questioning our true purpose on this planet. Now the question remains in the hands of the audience: “Where to from here? Who are we really?”

If you don’t believe that, look around you. The world is waking up and as a result, mass protests are taking place.

How old were you when you had your first dream about your ancestors?

Can’t really say. They come in so many different forms. Sometimes a dream looks normal until you connect the dots and realise that the message was divine. My sister and I were actually laughing about it the other day because I haven’t been in proper REM sleep for the longest time, when it used to happen so regularly.

Now I don’t need to sleep to dream anymore, my connection with that frequency has grown so much through constant creation that I can hear with the same clarity in my waking life as I do in my sleep. Thought I was losing my mind at first, but it takes a lot of trust and patience to discern and filter through the worldly noise. Starting to realise that dreams aren’t just astral projections of our imagination but a reality at a different frequency on our plane of existence that we access when our subconscious is allowed to roam freely devoid of fear.

Tsoku Maela, Bardo, Barongwa: I am that I am

Do you dream in technicolor, monochrome or animation?

I actually read that depending on the way you consumed media/film in your childhood, your dreams will imitate that medium chromatically. So if you grew up on black and white television, you are most likely to dream in monochrome. My dreams are in color, monochrome and animation. But also, none of the above if you understand. The repressed subconscious interprets colour differently from the human eye and takes all forms of existence into consideration.

For example, I’ve never really seen shadows in my dreams–that may sound like a nothing statement because in the “real” world shadows are inanimate objects but in the surreal realm everything is alive, so shadows would have to be accounted for as an entity with its own existence. It would have to be significant to the story somehow. Anyway, that’s just nerd talk but it’s definitely a combination of all three.

Do you perceive art as a spiritual healing practice for the Black artist?

For any artist. Creative energy is the most common and most misunderstood form of energy. It manifests itself physically and multiplies. But once that stream opens up, anything is possible, the good and the bad. But you see, creativity is then not a physical act–if the body was the orchestra then creative energy is the conductor. There’s a word for it. It’s called meditation. To be both secure and vulnerable in the face of the unknown. This is the reason creating will always be our greatest gift. Man has been creating since they were created in the image of the creator. Today the world is experiencing some tumultuous times and you know which platform is popping off the most? The platform that always pops off when any civilization is facing its most difficult times?


Let that sink in.

Photo by Chaze Matakala.

Abstract Peaces and Barongwa seem to overlap in terms of dealing with interpersonal and cosmic battles. How true is this for you?

Traditional healers have ubizo (the calling) to heal people, something that is a different side of the same coin as creating. That’s my calling, to create. To speak to people through my work. Not to heal with the earth. But just like ubizo, accepting the creative calling isn’t a smooth sail, it has its challenges and more often than not you may exhibit symptoms of mental conditions and get diagnosed with one as I was. But the more I grew into understating that relationship with my muse and started walking this path, with a lot of guidance, I’m starting to understand that the bipolar episodes were me coming to grips with the calling because in truth I have never been happier since I started creating. But the experience is as real as the work it inspired. That’s the correlation between the two bodies of work.

What are some of the things you've learned in the year since your previous solo exhibition, Broken Things, at 99 Loop?

It’s so easy to get caught up in the hype as a young creative. In my first year as a photographer I had two group exhibitions and a solo. Featured on CNN and numerous publications and suddenly everyone wants to be my friend or seen with me based on all of that. What does it all mean though? If you constantly have to be in people’s faces to remain relevant, are you really relevant? The biggest lesson for sure has to be that I don’t create for recognition or for galleries. Not for likes or Instagram followers. I create because there are stories to be told. So when you strip away all the expectations, all the noise, all the fake friends around you, money etcetera, what really remains is the work. That keeps me alive and I will keep on creating not only the work, but a platform for it to exist and reach the people it’s supposed to.

Tsoku Maela, Creation of man, Barongwa: I am that I am

What are your connections to the people featured in your new body of work?

I’m very picky about who I work with on a project, this much is true. If I was a musician I’d probably drop albums with no features and leave a spot for that one artist that I love wholeheartedly. A lot of photographers capture the human, the eyes, form, aesthetic, but I’m drawn to you. The real you. The soul. That’s why I can’t really pose models, it’s in the moment. Barongwa was slightly different because I stepped out of that moment and created it with people that I felt were brought to me to work with. Theodore [Afrika] and I have worked on several projects together and are good friends. Laverne [HippKhoi Maart] and Meegan [Mitchell] were God’s gift. They were not models on this shoot, they became the very subject I was trying to capture. We’d never met prior to that.

What upcoming work do you have to share with us?

I’ll probably disappear for a little bit. Or for a while. It’s been two years of solid shooting and creating on the photography medium. I know my seasons.

I’m really excited though to be working with aKomanet out in the U.S. on a project called ‘Amplify’ where I’ll be mentoring 25 young photographers across Africa. So that should give me some time for introspection and maybe inspire a few creators to go out there and express themselves without limitation.

But I have an idea of where I’d like to venture into next. Really excited about that.

Barongwa: I am that I am is on view at 99 Loop in Cape Town through September 23.

Tsoku Maela, The Anointing, Barongwa: I am that I am

Tsoku Maela, The Mothers, Barongwa: I am that I am

Tsoku Maela, The Three, Barongwa: I am that I am

Chaze has got Zambian roots and is currently making the most out of a polyamorous relationship between poetry, photography and documentary filmmaking in Cape Town.

Photo still courtesy of YouNeek Studios.

The Official Trailer for 'Malika: Warrior Queen' Is Here

Malika surely means business in the clip that sets the scene for YouNeek Studios' newest animated pilot.

After much anticipation, the new trailer for Malika: Warrior Queen, starring Nollywood's own Adesua Etomi, is finally here.

In the trailer, we already see the Warrior Queen fearlessly stand up to defend her people against enemies who have set their sights on seizing her expanding empire of Azzaz. Facing threats of invasion by foreign cultures, Malika now has to decide how to fight a war both inside her kingdom and outside of it.

"War is coming," she declares.

Malika: Warrior Queen was executive produced by Niyi Akinmolayan of Anthill Studios. The series has been three years in the making, with a two-part comic series already available for reading; and even more so in line with YouNeek Studios' mission to create stories inspired by African history, culture and mythology.

Joining Etomi in the cast are Femi Branch, voicing Chief Dogbari, Deyemi Okanlowon, voicing the WindMaker and King Bass, Blossom Chukwujekwu as Abdul and Sambassa Nzeribe, voicing General Ras.

Check it out below.

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All photos courtesy of Remi Dada

Afropreneurs: Meet the Designer Reinventing Nigerian Workspaces

Remi Dada's Spacefinish is shaking up design to create futuristic work environments for African companies

In the digital age when a fancy rectangle in our pockets can find us whatever we want, customize it and deliver it to our door, it's odd that the same thought process isn't also applied to physical space. Why does every parking lot feel exactly the same? Can waiting rooms be designed to make time pass more quickly? How can we bring these new standards of personalization into the areas where we live our lives?

Nigerian designer, Remi Dada, is doing just that. With both architecture and business degrees, Dada started his career in tech working in user experience and product marketing–eventually ending up at Google Nigeria. Once he started working in the office however, Dada didn't find it to be an environment that sparked inspiration or productivity. It felt more like rooms with tables and chairs rather than a place that nurtured new, progressive ideas. Luckily, the perfect project presented itself: redesign the office. Dada jumped at the opportunity to meld his practical knowledge in user experience with his love of design and architecture–and the result turned some heads.

Thus Spacefinish was born, a pioneering design company based in Nigeria that works with companies to transform ordinary office space into beautiful and functional environments that increase productivity and employee satisfaction. I spoke with Dada about the purpose of Spacefinish, the importance of design in the workspace and the unique properties of designing in Nigeria for Nigerians. Read on for insights from the design entrepreneur on the impact of spaces and what the future holds for the company.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Nereya Otieno for OkayAfrica: In your experience, how important is workspace environment in Lagos? How is it viewed?

It hasn't been prioritized. A lot of employers do not invest heavily in their employees and you can see that in work spaces all over the world. Now, people are also beginning to understand that high-performing employees–especially millennials–want to work in a space that inspires them and with people who inspire them. Right now in Nigeria it is still very new.

We've been able to measure how companies have been performing prior to us renovating their space and afterwards. What we've seen consistently is that our spaces help with employee retention, they help with collaboration and they help with inspiration. One important thing that we always measure and that we try and add to our design is what we call 'PIC.' PIC is the measure of productivity, innovation and collaboration–now we can track that within a workspace. These three key things are the pillars of how we create better work spaces.

A sketch showing plans for a space in the PwC Experience Centre, Lagos.

With that data, it's probably pretty simple to pitch Spacefinish to a company. But what was it like in the beginning to try and sell the first Spacefinish idea outside of Google? You're essentially coming into a stranger's space and saying 'you're doing this wrong.'

True. We were very lucky in that the first space we did was a Google office. It's Google. Everyone aspires to have a workplace like Google and people visiting the office were curious about how a space like that could exist in Nigeria. So there was a lot of interest but no commitments. Our first real commitment came from a company called Andela, a tech startup aspiring to be like the spaces you see in Silicon Valley. But they were looking to create a space just to meet their capacity and meet their head count, that was all. They thought they wouldn't be able to afford what we'd done for Google.

I went and pitched for them to do something different instead of creating the standard, generic workspace that we've all seen. Then I took our approach: connect the expense and cost of that project to the potential output of the team working there and how that could affect the company's bottom line. When we do that, it becomes an easier conversation to have. Once we are able to connect with the key decision makers and give them metrics they actually care about—like it's not about having a pretty space but about having a space that will allow people to achieve their short and long-term goals—they tend to be more receptive.

A meeting room at the Google offices in Lagos.

Do you feel like a bit of a disruptor or trouble maker?

I would say when we started we didn't feel like a disruptor. For me, it felt very natural because it was in line with what I was hired for and the world I was coming from. When you work at Google, you tend to live in an innovation bubble. So we didn't feel like disruptors while it was happening, but when we got people's reactions—the industry's reaction—then we realized that what we were doing was actually groundbreaking and very new to that part of the world.

Okay. And then what do you do after that? You just keep poking at that nerve?

Yeah. [Laughs] So what happens after that is the floodgates open up and we start to see a lot more demand than we can handle as a company. That gave me the confidence to quit my job at Google and do this full time. We are now starting to figure out how to do it to the best of our capacity at the same level, and sometimes surpassing, what our peers are doing across the world.

What do you find is the most important element within the workspace? How does Spacefinish highlight that?

People are the most important element in the workspace. One CEO said that his team was very unruly—weren't well composed. There is a mentality that we all subscribe to, especially coming from Nigeria where you see people at the local airports not obeying the rules. But those same people, as soon as they land in Heathrow, they're suddenly very compliant. They're the same people. The only thing that changed is their environment. New spaces can cause people to change their behavior—they morph into the space. For that client, the leadership was very happy that their team members began acting in the way they wanted them to act when we changed the space. The psychology of the whole thing is very interesting. That's why we take a human-centered approach to design, with a lot of qualitative and quantitative research before we begin.

View of the Vibranium Valley warehouse workspace in Lagos.

I'm originally from California and I grew up in Silicon Valley–it's a very peculiar place simply because of the concentration of resources. There are surely different challenges for a developer in Nigeria versus one in Silicon Valley. What is the most unique thing for you, after all your travels and experience, that makes designing for Nigeria special?

That's a really good question. You rarely find imagery of inland Africa that is progressive and modern. The first time in recent times was the Black Panther movie and that's why it was so huge. Kids could see a different version of what Africa could be in their collective imagination. I'm making this correlation because that is what I think is different for us, from a design standpoint. For example, the Google office in Nigeria looks very Nigerian. It has a lot of cultural nuances and it is locally relevant to the region, however it is a very sophisticated and modern space with all the right technology. There's videoconferencing, micro-efficiency, access control and security but with the backdrop of an African space. When people see that, it feels very fresh and new and there is so much content that we can use to inspire–from artwork to traditions–and we infuse all those things in to the spaces we're creating.

Do you have a favorite space you've done?

All the spaces we've done have been fantastic. But I think my favorite to date is the PwC office, it is an innovation hub and a huge cultural departure for PwC. They are more or less known as a rigid, stoic brand and they wanted a space that defied all of those things. So we created an innovation hub that was super, super, super futuristic and the first of its kind in West Africa. Anyone who knows interior fitouts understands that lines are straightforward but curves are complicated. This space has a lot of curves. That's difficult to do anywhere in the world but 10 times more complicated in Nigeria because we just don't have access to the right tools and technology that you will find elsewhere. But it came out very well and that has been my most exciting space so far.

A look at the PwC Experience Centre, Lagos

Was it also the most challenging?

It was, yes, because of the design ideas we wanted to achieve. We have things like revolving doors that were inspired by the hobbits' shire in Lord of the Rings and a single workstation that extends across the entire space. There are a lot of lights, floating elements and Nsibidi—an ancient African writing system that we used to create a new language. The artwork is very deep and gives a timeline of different instances in Africa where technology has inspired innovation. It was a very involved and challenging project. But we do the challenging things because we feel it allows us to move forward and push boundaries.

Sure. It's exciting for you and everyone you work with but also, I'd say, for the local contractors and artists doing the artwork.

You know, that is something that we do differently. Most architecture firms just design but we design and build. We do that because, when we started, no one in the market really understood what we were doing. We were asking for materials that didn't exist so we had to create our own. Also, everything we do is local, we don't import anything–which can be an even bigger challenge. But we want to know that we are helping to build industries here in Nigeria, we want to help fix the lack of resources in this part of the world. We could import but it doesn't help the community and economic infrastructure in the long run.

A meeting room in Vibranium Valley

I think the first time our impact hit me was when we were building a place called Vibranium Valley. That's been our biggest project so far: a 2,000 square meter office that was built in a massive warehouse. I went there on a Wednesday one day and we had over 200 people working in the space. And for the first time I was like, "Wow, we really have the ability to create jobs as well." It put things in context for me.

Are there any plans to venture outside of offices and corporate workspaces with your human-centered approach? Classrooms, waiting rooms, etc.?

We are actually about to embark on our first non-office project. We are designing and building the interior of two international airports in Nigeria: Lagos and Port Harcourt. Two very massive projects that we couldn't say no to one says no to international airports [Laughs]. So it's a good way to toss us into things outside of the workspace. So everyone should come fly to Nigeria and check it out when we're finished.

Catch Nereya on her Instagram here.

Still from 'Harriet' trailer.

Watch Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman In the Moving New Trailer for 'Harriet'

The highly-anticipated biopic about the life of the iconic freedom fighter is due out on November 1.

Back in 2017, it was announced that Tony-winning actor and singer Cynthia Erivo would be taking on the role of the iconic freedom fighter Harriet Tubman in the upcoming biopic Harriet. We've been anticipating its release ever since, and today, the trailer for the buzzed about film has finally arrived.

The moving and climactic trailer sees Erivo delivering a convincing performance as Tubman. The film follows the hero's journey from escaping slavery to becoming a legendary abolitionist and freedom fighter. Here's the official description of the film via Shadow & Act:

Based on the thrilling and inspirational life of an iconic American freedom fighter, Harriet tells the extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman's escape from slavery and transformation into one of America's greatest heroes. Her courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.
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