For his Molelo Wa Badimo exhibit, Reatile traveled the world to find and photograph people with Vitiligo. The visual artist says he wanted to tell the story of African beauty to change the worldview on the continent and its people.
In many parts of the world, there is great shame and stigma attached to this skin condition in which pale patches and patches develop all over the body of those affected. Yet Reatile Moalusi does not view vitiligo, an autoimmune disease, as a physical imperfection.
He sees it as an opportunity to create beautiful art. Reatile, a photographer from Roodepoort on Gauteng’s West Rand, is on a mission to debunk the myths surrounding the disease. His solo show, Molelo Wa Badimo, was recently shown at Absa Gallery in Johannesburg and received rave reviews.
Her take on vitiligo comes from how traditional healers view people with unusual skin undertones. “Traditional healers look at people with vitiligo and think they have some kind of spiritual power and then maim them,” he says. “I am not defending traditional or Western medicine. But I am championing the cause of a girl who woke up and started to see marks developing on her skin. “They can’t walk in the sun without sunscreen – these are the people I stand for.” His interest in vitiligo began about a decade ago when he spotted a girl in Pretoria with a usual skin type.
“Her skin was black and white,” Realile recalls. “I had never seen anything like this before. It was fascinating, so I went to see her. As she explained her skin problem to him, Reatile became more captivated.
“I’ve seen people live with albinism, but nothing like it. I told her how beautiful she was and how different she was. “I wanted to take pictures of her, but first I had to do my research and learn photography.”
It took Reatile about eight months to research the condition of the skin thoroughly before inviting the girl on a shoot, which he then featured in one of his college shows. Yet few people understood his obsession with vitiligo.
While studying at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), Reati’s professors believed him to make a brilliant architectural photographer. “But I asked myself, why should I photograph buildings? If it’s not native architecture, why did I photograph them? The photographer, whose work has been featured in Vogue Italia, says his lecturers did not understand why he wanted to photograph people with vitiligo.
“My teachers thought I was going crazy going this route. “I even lost my purse because I refused to do anything to sell it. I wanted to do what satisfied my desires. With the approval of legendary photographer Alf Khumalo, the young photographer pursued his passion. In fact, without Alf, Reatile might have become an architectural photographer. Alf, he recalls, attended one of Reatile’s first shows at TUT.
The show featured a portrayal of the girl who had started her obsession with inner and outer beauty. “I remember I went to see Alf and asked him what his favorite picture was. “He said, ‘The photo of that girl that’s black and white.’
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Reatile Moalusi wants to celebrate black people with vitiligo.
Reatile with a few of the models he has photographed over the years (left to right): Yvonne Magala, Setshaba Mamabolo and Busi Zungu.
“I told him it was mine and he encouraged me to do more.”
Perhaps it was Alf’s improvised remark, but for Reatile, it was reassurance that he was on the right track. “This guy was Nelson Mandela’s personal photographer, he was one of the greatest. And getting a boost from her was exactly what I needed. After her interaction with Alf, Reatile spent two years scouring the country for people with vitiligo.
“It’s not like I’m looking for them, but I was using places like taxis,” he laughs. He was able to find at least 15 people of all races living with vitiligo. But while searching, he lost his university scholarship.
“They thought I was losing my mind because I wanted to follow my passion, but I knew I wanted to do something.”
He didn’t know it at the time, but the “something” he was looking for turned out to be a comprehensive body of work on vitiligo in Africa. “I didn’t want to show the colonial images that the world wants to see. I wanted to show the world what we are.
Yet there were times during his mission when he had no money for food or transportation. “I would take pictures for my studies, submit them and after being graded by a speaker, I would sell them for R20 just for food or transportation.” Reatile, who is the older brother of The Throne actor Kabelo Moalusi, didn’t want to bother his parents about school fees.
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But his father, David, helped him by buying him a motorbike so he could travel from Roodepoort to Pretoria for lessons. Graduated from TUT in 2013, he launched a career that has seen him travel the world for the perfect photo. Now he works from his studio at Museum Park in central Pretoria. “I want to rewrite colonial photography in Africa,” he says.