Seedtimes: A Retrospective – Omar Badsha (Review by Darren Newbury, University of Brighton)

Seedtimes – the title of Omar Badsha’s photographic retrospective is drawn from a poem by Mafika Gwala written in the wake of the Soweto Uprising of 1976, a period when the cultural and political movement against apartheid really began to develop momentum in the townships of South Africa. A time when there would be ‘no more lullabies’ as Gwala put it. The germination of Badsha’s own practice, however, can be located a decade or more earlier in the sophisticated debates around art, culture and politics that animated the activist community in Durban where he grew up, and which shaped his work as an artist and trade union organiser. Photography became Badsha’s chosen medium, I suggest, because of its capacity to serve a pedagogy of vision; it provided a vehicle for his visual sensibility at the same time as it allowed him to respond directly to the urgent demands of the political moment in which he found himself. It is the conjunction of Badsha’s maturing as a photographer with the surging politics of liberation that provides the point of departure for this retrospective.

The extended photographic essays that comprise the book are shaped by the overlapping concerns of community, political organisation, and the visual quality and material texture of the everyday. They emerge from a practice of attentive being and engaged looking; as Badsha describes it, ‘walk[ing] slowly, looking, framing, arranging and rearranging’. The photographs do not ‘capture’ the world unaware, as it were, but rather arise out of an ongoing dialogue; the photographer is participant as well as observer, and many of his subjects are collaborators in the image making. This is documentary, not in any narrow sense as mere record, but in its fullest, original sense as a creative response to social and political reality.

As one would expect of a retrospective, the selection draws out themes that have threaded through the photographer’s career; nevertheless, a strong sense of the photographs grounding in time and place has been retained, rather than giving priority to a singular artistic narrative. The images remain embedded in historical time. It is striking that many of the photographs would be no less at home in a family collection or on the pages of the underground political press, as no doubt some of them were, than they are in an artistic retrospective. For all its political symbolism, the most striking aspect of the photograph of the funeral of ANC activists at Bonteheuwel in 1989 is the palpable sense of community, the loss experienced individually and collectively by those present, a point reinforced by the following image of an interment at Brook Street Cemetery in Durban, made eight years previously. This is not the universal humanism of Edward Steichen’s Family of Man, but there is nonetheless a humanistic quality to Badsha’s photography. As Imraan Coovadia suggests in his essay, via Hannah Arendt, these are documents of political life.

The book begins with an extended sequence of photographs on children, a reminder that a formative project in Badsha’s career was the photographic essay and book ‘Letter to Farzanah’, a collaboration with Fatima Meer that marked the United Nations Year of the Child (1979). The opening image in this sequence is one of Badsha’s most formally powerful images: a child in the township of Inanda carrying a clump of wet earth on her head, which she is using to repair the outer wall of her home. The textural quality of the image in which the pattern on the young girl’s dress seems to merge her torso into the mud hut wall provides a backdrop from which she seems poised to spring forth, her hands held at a moment of anticipated action and her quizzical glance out of frame giving to the image a political narrative. This image initiates a theme echoed in several later images in the book: burdens, often physical but also symbolic, that are carried, especially by women. These images speak of labour – bundles of cardboard to be recycled, bales of straw – but also of blessing – a tray of biscuits, a birthday ceremony – and of the responsibility of community – the coffins of fallen comrades – weaving a religious and human world view from photographs made many years apart, and in distant places.

The book unfolds in this manner, with themes that weave through the selection, later images reminding the viewer of earlier ones, subtly altering and deepening their meanings, as well as provocative juxtapositions. The adult world of politics that exists on the edges of the frame in the initial sequence gradually begins to make its presence felt, becoming more central as the generational focus of the selection shifts. But politics here is always in relation to the domestic, community and religious spaces in which consciousness is formed, grows and is renewed. Many intimate images made within domestic settings speak to the acceptance of Badsha’s camera as a part of the environment in which he lived and worked. There is a delightful photograph of Mr Khan of Lorne Street, Durban, as he pops his head through an interior doorway, completely uninterested in the camera and preoccupied by his own everyday concerns. Another, made in Fordsburg, Johannesburg in 1978, shows a scene after a family mealtime, with a man in the foreground absorbed in reading a newspaper, and a woman, a family member, seated in the background deep in thought. The image is beautifully composed and resonates with questions around gender, domesticity, and public and private spheres. There are many formal portraits. Sitters are shown in relation to the spaces they inhabit, spaces of labour, domesticity, culture, religion and community, as well as the dislocated spaces of migrant labour, where bonds of family and community are made fragile. At times the spaces themselves become the subject. Carefully composed images of carefully composed spaces. Spaces of the imagination and spaces of destruction; one powerful juxtaposition sets a stage backdrop against a destroyed home, the latter referencing the forced removals policy of the apartheid regime. And, as an ardent cricket fan, Badsha cannot pass up the opportunity to photography a set of stumps painted onto a wall in passageway in Victoria Street, Durban.

Politics forms a dominant theme in the collection, with the growing struggle against apartheid documented most explicitly in the middle section of the book. But this is an unusually rich description of the politics of struggle. There are familiar images of street protest, several of which, such as those at Kwa Mashe and Lamontville, share in the performative and exuberant quality of their subjects. And there are images too of the pain, sacrifice and sheer exhaustion endured throughout the struggle for another South Africa. No less important to the documentary record, however, are those images that speak of the dedicated work of organisation, the everyday of politics as well as the politics of the everyday. The photograph of a secret meeting at the University of Cape Town in 1989 expresses this particularly well through the juxtaposition of an organisational structure worked out on a blackboard with a human embrace.

Badsha’s deep political commitments meant he played an important role as an organiser within photography, through Afrapix and major exhibitions such as ‘The Cordoned Heart’, as well as without. But the much debated question of how best photographers and other cultural workers could serve the anti-apartheid struggle should not obscure the skill and vision he brought to the medium. Many of the images signal political documentary intent in their directness of address, accompanied by a sense of reciprocity between photographer and subject. At the same time, there is a poetics alongside the politics of this description of the everyday, of which the Fordsburg photograph mentioned above is a perfect example. Or consider the Vermeer-like quality of a 1978 portrait of a domestic worker on the Claire Estate, Durban. At other moments, Badsha gives freer rein to an aesthetic sensibility informed by modernist documentary and journalistic photography of the mid-twentieth century. Interestingly, in the selection here, this seems most evident in the photographs of worshippers at Lalibela, and the woman carrying biscuits in Harar, both made on a trip to Ethiopia in 2001. It is almost as if the poetic abstraction of this kind of image-making was ruled out by the urgency of the political circumstances of his earlier career; though the photograph of people at prayers, Nazareth Church, Inanda, 1983, indicates that it has always been a part of his photographic repertoire. This tension might be read in parallel to Ari Sitas’s discussion of ‘living rights’, in his essay in the volume, as a question of political philosophy in visual form.

The book includes photo-essays from visits Badsha made during the later part of his career to Ethiopia, to his grandmother’s home town of Tadkeshwar, Gujarat, India, and to Denmark. Having been subject to a banning order that prevented him from travelling outside of South Africa before 1990, this new international mobility offered an opportunity to widen the circles within which he explored the themes shaped during his formative years. As noted above, these projects provided openings for photographic exploration; at the same time, one can recognise the questions being asked of the places and people that Badsha moved among, questions about work, identity, community, culture and politics. And children and youth remain a central concern in these projects too.

The photographic essay section closes with an image that has a pleasing lightness of touch, yet which prompts deeper reflection on the significance of this retrospective collection. The photograph invites the viewer to peer into the humble workspace of a watch repairer, a ‘Mechanic of Time’ as the sign above the entrance announces (Umkhandi Wama Washi in Zulu). One worker in the realm of time paying respect to another; the photographer whose task it is to stop time, looking in on a colleague committed to getting it going again. There is humour here of course; yet it also speaks to a more complex temporal sensibility. The collection contains only a handful of images of South Africa taken after the late 1990s. The South African essay ends in 2003 with Nelson Mandela at the funeral of his friend and comrade Walter Sisulu. How then should the book be read against the backdrop of South Africa today? Are we to understand this chosen endpoint as a moment when the clock of historical progress stopped for South Africa, when the movement toward social justice documented here had reached its apogee? Perhaps. But one might equally interpret this final, metaphorical image as an invitation not to read the photographs retrospectively, as stilled moments of historical time, but critically for their potential to restore movement to the present.

Date of publication: 
Thursday, May 25, 2017