There’s still a stigma attached to mental illness in the black community. Some don’t even recognise it as a sickness – you are usually told you are being weak, especially if you are a man, because you are stereotypically expected to be strong. Three South African artists are using their lenses – stills and video – to open a dialogue about mental illness among black people.
Originally from Limpopo, Tsoku is now based in Cape Town, and has suffered from manic depression and anxiety his whole life. In April he released a series of images called Abstract Peaces, in which he explores the isolation that comes with mental illness, especially among black people. In the essay accompanying the series, he also hints at the positives of mental illness. “Depression isn’t all doom and gloom,” he writes, “there is so much beauty to be drawn from it. It’s an opportunity to learn about yourself and how your intricate mind works – and the reason it works the way it does.” Tsoku’s images range from young men isolated and lying curled up in the desert to them trying to rid themselves of the condition – in one image he showcases this with a man removing white paint from his eyes with a paint brush to reveal his “true colours”.
Known for his series The Great African Horror Story released earlier this year, Thembela tells the story of depression with dark monochrome images. In the series, a black man – the protagonist – is always in the presence of a woman – presumably a partner. In some images she looks oblivious to what’s happening to her man. This, according to Thembela, is because sometimes the person closest to the mental illness victim doesn’t notice that something is wrong with him. Even if they do, they don’t know how to help. “[The woman] also represents ‘society’, which can become the catalyst in a person’s depression,” says Ngayi. “Society often turns a blind eye to the condition.”
Nhlakanipho’s docuseries called #ALONE focuses on the moment a mental illness victim is about to give up and make the decision to take their own life. In the first episode, the Johannesburg-based videographer, shows a conflicted young man, as he soliloquises about his situation, while ominous music plays in the background. “Look into my eyes, you will be surprised of what you might find,” he says. “Yes, I may know how to hide my feelings, but could you see beyond my smile? Could you see that my heart has been broken so many times?” #ALONE makes you realise that many people around you are carrying burdens that are getting too heavy, though they may smile, and try to hide it. Watch the docuseries here.