From the archives | Local photographer Reatile Moalusi on why his photography centres around people with vitiligo

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For his Molelo Wa Badimo exhibition, Reatile travelled the world to find and photograph people with vitiligo. The visual artist says he wanted to retell the story of African beauty to change the world’s view of the continent and its people.
For his Molelo Wa Badimo exhibition, Reatile travelled the world to find and photograph people with vitiligo. The visual artist says he wanted to retell the story of African beauty to change the world’s view of the continent and its people.
Ongkopotse Koloti

In many parts of the world there’s great shame and stigma attached to this skin condition in which pale spots and patches develop all over sufferers’ bodies. Yet Reatile Moalusi doesn’t see 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 making it his mission to debunk myths around the condition. His solo exhibition, Molelo Wa Badimo, recently featured at Johannesburg’s Absa Gallery to rave reviews.

His take on vitiligo comes from how traditional healers view people with unusual shades of skin. “Traditional healers look at people with vitiligo and think they have some kind of spiritual powers and then they mutilate them,” he says. “I’m not advocating for traditional or Western medicine. But I am advocating for a girl who woke up and started seeing marks growing on her skin. “They can’t walk in the sun without sunscreen – those are the people I’m advocating for.” His interest in vitiligo started about a decade ago when he spotted a girl in Pretoria with an usual kind of skin.

“Her skin looked black and white,” Reatile recalls. “I’d never seen something like that before. It was fascinating so I went up to her.” As she explained her skin condition to him, Reatile became more captivated.

“I’ve seen people living with albinism, but nothing like that. I told her how beautiful she looked and that she was different. “I wanted to take pictures of her but I needed to do my research first and learn about photography.”

It took Reatile about eight months to research the skin condition thoroughly before he invited the girl for a shoot, which he later featured in one of his varsity exhibitions. Yet not many people understood his obsession with vitiligo.

While  he was studying at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), Reati le’s lecturers thought he’d make a brilliant architectural photographer. “But I asked myself, why should I shoot buildings? If it’s not indigenous architecture, why was I shooting them?” The photographer, who’s had his work featured in Vogue Italia, says his lecturers couldn’t understand why he wanted to shoot portraits of people with vitiligo.

 “My lecturers thought I was going crazy for taking this route. “I even lost my bursary because I refused to do something for sales. I wanted to do what satisfies my desires.” With the approval of legendary photographer Alf Khumalo, the young lensman pursued his passion. In fact, had it not been for Alf, Reatile may very well have become an architectural photographer. Alf, he recalls, attended one of Reatile’s early exhibitions at TUT.

The show featured a portrait of the girl who’d started his obsession with inner and outer beauty. “I remember that I went up to Alf and asked him which his favourite picture was. “He said, ‘The picture of that girl who is black and white.’

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Reatile Moalusi
Reatile Moalusi wants to celebrate black people with vitiligo.
Reatile Moalusi
Reatile with a few of the models he photographed over the years (from left): Yvonne Magala, Setshaba Mamabolo and Busi Zungu.

"I told him it was mine and he encouraged me to do more of that.”

It may have been an off-the-cuff remark from Alf but for Reatile it was an assurance he was on the right track. “This guy used to be Nelson Mandela’s personal photographer, he was one of the greats. And getting a thumbs up from him was exactly what I needed.” After his interaction with Alf, Reatile spent two years travelling the country in search of people with vitiligo.

“It’s not like I was looking for them but I was availing myself in places like taxis,” he says, laughing. He was able to find at least 15 people of all races living with vitiligo. But while searching he lost his university bursary.

“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 pictures the world wants to see. I wanted to show the world what we are.”

Yet there were times during his mission when he didn’t have money for food or transport. “I’d take pictures for my studies, submit it and after being marked by a lecturer I’d sell them for R20 just to have food or transport.” Reatile, who’s the older brother of The Throne actor Kabelo Moalusi, didn’t want to bother his parents for tuition fees.

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But his father, David, helped him out by buying him a motorbike so he could travel from Roodepoort to Pretoria to attend classes. Graduating from TUT in 2013 kickstarted a career that’s seen him travel the world for the perfect picture. Now he works from his studio at Museum Park in central Pretoria. “I want to rewrite colonial photography in Africa,” he says.
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