Omar Badsha: Making the Ordinary Extraordinary

Currently on view at the Durban Art Gallery is an exhibition of over two hundred black and white photographs by Omar Badsha, spanning thirty years' work. Badsha has selected works from four major periods: the earliest photographs date from 1976 to the mid-1980s, many of which were shot in Durban's Grey Street area; then there are photographs taken in Denmark in 1995 when he received an official invitation from that country to spend exactly 21 days in Copenhagen shooting, developing and then arranging an exhibition of the photographs he had taken during that brief time; that body of works was followed by photographs taken in 1996 in India, spent mainly in the north western Gujarat region where his grandfather was born, and where he was able to trace family members still living there; and finally there are works shot in 2002 in Ethiopia in the city called Harer, (often called ‘Rimbaud's city' where, from 1885, the French author, Rimbaud, lived a wild and dissolute life) which is located near the Ethiopian border.

Badsha started off his artistic career as a print maker, (he won a prize on the 1965 Art - South Africa - Today exhibition for one of his woodcuts) ; this was followed by charcoal drawings which show the influence of Dumile who was then living in Durban. These drawings are characterised by the use of swift, economic lines which capture the very essence of his subject. But they did not satisfy Badsha's urgency to capture and distill an image in one, swift stroke: such rapidity of execution was only possible through the medium of the photograph. By the early 1970s he was teaching himself photographic techniques through experimentation in a dark room he hired off the Grey street part of Durban.

The hallmarks of his style are apparent in his earliest photographs. These are the use of the small format and the tilting of foreground towards the background, a device which gives his composition a great deal of tension, as does his sensitive use of light and dark which heightens the subject for the viewer, and subtly transforms a very ordinary subject into an extraordinary image. A fine example of this is to be seen in the photographs entitled Street Performance , 1981, and Game of Chance, Victoria Street (1983) in which the figure is playing a street game which took place almost every day: Badsha takes the subject of the street performer and magically transforms it into a figure which seems to turn inwards into itself, twisting and turning and spinning in its own space. His keen, artistic eye has captured that precise moment and he succeeds in turning a particular subject into an unforgettable and timeless image. On another level, the figure is seen to be engaging in a kind of ritual, a major theme which occurs again and again in all periods of Badsha's work.

From the very beginning Badsha was concerned with creating a narrative in his photographs, something he says he .... ‘grapples with to this very day'. However, in spite of its narrative content, his work cannot be considered as photo journalism: his photographs go far beyond mere reports of what he sees and captures through his lens. Consciously (or unconsciously) his photographs are expressions of what is most meaningful to him, a process which he continuously seeks, regardless of where he might be in the world.

Migration is another theme which dominates his work. It informs the photograph of his grandmother holding Badsha's baby daughter, Farzanah, because his grandmother may be regarded as a symbol of one, particular migration which took place in the 1840s when Indians left their home country to first settle in South Africa. Badsha regards his family's immigration to South Africa in the 19 th century as part of a global movement he aptly describes as ..... ‘following the British flag to the colonies'. The theme of migration, particularly in photographs of the Durban period, must also be viewed against the political background at the time, and as the part Badsha himself played as photographer and activist, together with descendants of the first Indian people in Durban, many of whom were protesting against the injustices of apartheid. As a political activist Badsha put himself, as well as his subjects, at great risk from the apartheid government by shooting protest photographs. There are many examples of such works on the exhibition, one example of which is South African Police Arresting Protestors after Assissination of UDF leader, Victoria Mxengle , 1986. In my opinion works from this period go beyond the realm of mere narrative because of Badsha's discerning eye and sensitivity in the choice of a particular subject, the intellectual component which informs all his work, and his mastery of the photographic technique.

The theme of migration continues in both Badsha's Indian photographs as well as in those he took in Denmark.

He went to India not only to ...‘ unearth relatives there', as he puts it, but also to trace his family's roots. Having been born and raised in South Africa, it was ironic for him to discover in India the caste system - one of the strongest racist phenomena in the world - and the class of people called the Untouchables. They are people who work in unclean professions and are, themselves, regarded as being unclean and seen to be polluting to others. Indian society found a ‘solution' to the problem of the Untouchables by segregating themfrom the rest of the castes.

In India, he also discovered that his family was highly regarded in the area in which they lived; in honour of his great-grandmother, for example, a well was constructed in her memory, which it to be seen in the photograph entitled Well Built in the 1920s in Memory of my Great Grandmother, Tadkeshwar , 1996. He also observed people undertaking humble rituals which he captured in his photographs of everyday activities : these include people tending birds in cages and a photograph of a police station with the main symbols of office - handcuffs, rope and keys - hanging with pride on the wall behind a police official's desk and his empty chair.

Badsha's Danish photographs are fascinating accounts of different peoples who have recently settled in Denmark as part of the current global migrations. They include the Inuit of Greenland, Bosnian Muslims who fled to Denmark during the war in their homeland and a second global migration of people from India to the West. Badsha immediately became aware that, as foreigners, these people feel alienated from the main culture of their adopted country - and perhaps this is one of the reasons why the different groups of people he has photographed seem to cling together through common ritual. A photograph which captures this aspect of contemporary life in Copenhagen is Funeral of Bosnian Muslim Leader, Copenhagen , 1995; Visit to museum Copenhagen , 1995, depicts an Inuit man standing proudly in a museum in Copenhagen in front of a painting of two Inuit people, perhaps to be regarded as a link between the present Inuit and their past history. Another reason that people feel cut off from mainstream life in Denmark is that, according to Badsha, the Danes, themselves, find it very difficult to come to terms with all these recent settlers to their land. The Danes, too, cling to their own society through ritual, examples of which are the works, Friends at Monthly Lunch Get-together Copenhagen , 1995, and Games, Graveyard Copenhagen , 1995, in which the European game, Boule, (bowls) takes place in an environment which many people would regard as being inappropriate. Badsha believes that, because of the apartheid system, South Africans have had a much longer - even tougher - time in which to become accustomed to people from different cultures being separated from one another and, consequently, being better able to deal with this issue by facing it head on and trying to resolve it.

Finally there is a group of photographs Badsha took on a visit to Ethiopia in 2002. He visited the thousand year old Muslim city of Harer. In Ethiopia two main religions, Christianity and Islam, exist side by side. Quite possibly, this was one reason why Badsha was drawn there, another being his interest in the role played by women in marginalised, impoverished societies. As in other periods of his work, Badsha asks the major questions: how do you portray the other and, further, how do you portray yourself in a system you do not accept? Both these questions are particularly relevant not only in Ethiopia, with its division between Muslim and Christian societies, but also to the apartheid period of Badha's work and to societies such as that of the Danes. Works which show the dominant role played by women in Harer, and which tell us a great deal about people's lives in this remote part of our continent, include Members of a Women's Co-operative Society, Harar , 2002, Child Bride on the Road to Lailbela 2002 and Women in Church Lailbela 2002.

This is a major exhibition by one of South Africa's leading photographers. Though it focuses on societies which are far apart geographically, it also reveals common human threads which unite and divide people, regardless of where they live on earth.

The exhibition closes on 3 September.

Date of publication: 
Tuesday, November 11, 2014