‘I love interesting-looking people’ Reatile says, interjecting our conversation one evening at Kitchener’s Bar in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. He points to a light-skinned, lanky man with fur dangling from his one shoulder and his face pierced at the bridge between his two striking eyes. When I ask him later about this moment, if this is how he approaches his work, he confirms that indeed difference is the biggest inspiration for and theme of his work.
“Difference is where I thrive. My work is informed by the issues in society rather than by objectifying someone who superficially looks different. Thus the object being photographed represents or personifies a state of emergency in my personal opinion,” he says.
This “emergency” he speaks of is reflected in the work he decides to pursue. It is happening now, from his work on the medical condition vitiligo and documenting road-side memorials in South Africa to his upcoming exhibition, called “We Are Cool”, an exhibition that will focus on white people’s fear as a consequence of black men’s manhood, coming of age and aspirations. His work captures both the personal and the social, with a particular familiarity and intimacy that decorates his work with an unquestionable and endearing charm and arresting beauty.
At the age of 35, Reatile Moalusi decided to take a retrenchment package from his last job and used that settlement to pursue photography at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) in Pretoria. Counting Ernest Cole, Irvin Penn and Sipho Mpongo as some of the photographers he enjoys, Moalusi was selected to attend the 6th New York portfolio review, where he had the opportunity to present his work to some of the most prestigious publications in the world, including New York Times, Washington Post, ESPN, National Geographic, Aperture and Vogue. His work was subsequently featured on the cover of Vogue Italia.
Focusing on vitiligo
Molelo Wa Badimo is a project in three chapters, all focused on vitiligo: The first chapter is titled “Complexion”, the second “Pigment” and the final chapter is “Hue”. Employing black and white portraits, he intimately captures a “deeper exploration of identity” as the chapters progress from the individual to the social.
The progression of the chapters charts the journey away from the stigmatisation of vitiligo. “Complexion” pulls you in with its immediate tenderness as it aims to capture the sum of the individual’s experience. “Pigment” evolves the narrative by using symbolism to reference wild life. “Nature has varying pigment and there it is normal – zebras, leopards, even lions. Pigment that varies in an animal is not seen as a disease but something that identifies the animal. It is not an anomaly in nature. It is part of the mammal fabric,” he explains. “Hue”, the final chapter, will present the subjects as members of society – family men, teachers – using pigment as a common thread in humanity and identity.
Moalusi set out to document people living with vitiligo with the “integrity and kindness that was never afforded us as African people”.
The title of the project, Molelo Wa Badimo, draws from his Setswana heritage. It loosely translates as ‘fire of the ancestors’. It is believed that “should those who are anointed and gifted traditionally and culturally not use their gifts, the ancestors or God marks them”. This is how those who live with vitiligo are explained in his culture. The myths and legends around vitiligo are not unique to South Africa. For example, in Kenya they believe it is caused by crossing where water used to bathe twins was thrown out. In Ethiopia the myth is that those who have vitiligo ate something forbidden. Such examples are widespread across the continent and are the source of the immense psychosocial burden that social stigmatisation places on those who have vitiligo.
Telling a story as an outsider
Narrating stories of a group you do not belong to tends to be voyeuristic and misconstrued. Moalusi is acutely aware of his outsiderness and the challenge that poses, which is why he set out to document people living with vitiligo with the “integrity and kindness that was never afforded us as African people,” he says, contrasting it with white people telling the stories of black people on the continent. Avoiding any misrepresentation of his subjects is a cornerstone of his work. What he seeks is “honest self-representation”. “There is a kind of loss of sentiment in translation,” he says – something he believes he avoided in this project.
“I think demystifying preconceived ideas of other people is essential.” – Reatile Moalusi
The photographer hopes to travel Africa and the world with the project to expand its reach and document more experiences of people living with vitiligo. He is currently raising funds to achieve this goal and to complete the project’s final third chapter, “Hue”. As a photographer drawn to identity and difference, he aims to use his work to explore difference but always as a process of social unification. “I think demystifying preconceived ideas of other people is essential. Colourism, racism, feminism, queer, ethnic grouping and all sorts of classifications were created by separation. When someone is separate from you, one tends to misunderstand him or her. I am firmly against exclusivity and I believe in a shared identity.”
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