Seedtime Retrospective - a review by Khehla Chepape Makgato (ampersandonline)

A review of Omar Badsha’s ‘Seedtime Retrospective’ at Museum Africa, Johannesburg

Better known as a social documentary photographer, anti-apartheid activist, unionist, historian, writer, many people do not know that Omar Badsha started his professional career as an artist in the 60’s. To introduce this my article on Badsha, I will quote Eric Newton, scholar, artist and art critic, from his book The Arts of Man. He wrote in the dawn of Badsha’s art career, ‘To note that man is a recorder of his own experience is important, for that is equivalent to saying that man is an artist.’

‘To note that man is a recorder of his own experience is important, for that is equivalent to saying that man is an artist.’

-Eric Newton

It is difficult for a young arts writer/critic like myself to write about someone like Omar, an who is a second generation from family of artists and, so, I try approach the topic carefully. Ebrahim Badsha, Omar’s father, was also an artist. Omar Badsha curated a ‘father and son’ art exhibition at the Durban Gallery in 2010 titled ‘Under The Umdoni Tree’. Here he showcased several works of his and that of his father. The Umdoni tree is an indigenous tree prevalently known as ‘Waterberry’ and is typically found in moist soil and areas of high rainfall. This tree was planted by his grandmother in their backyard and was the inspiration for the title of the exhibition.

Most of Badsha’s drawings gain power, both invocatory and intrinsic, from the intimate relation to the past manifolds of oppression.  His drawings, like his photography, become a place for ongoing dialogue of negotiation and representation between the photographer and the subject. He explores the conversations of apartheid and democracy, of the future viewers and the long history of images that precede the moment of the shutter snap. Badsha brings to his art the wealth of experience that shaped the person he is – navigating across politics, trade unions, philanthropic, academia, innovation and travel.

Preparing this piece of review, Badsha shared with me a very elaborate interview conducted with David Hempson in 1992, two years before dawn of democratic South Africa. Going through the interview, I am tempted to associate Badsha with ‘Paulo Freire of our Mzansi Africa’ in that he was among the generation of Black Consciousness movement that pursued alternative methods to fight the system -instead of merely complaining about oppressive laws which deprived most Africans and Indians of education and, ultimately, self-actualisation. Together with Rick Turner and Laurie Schlemmer, he established the Education Reform Association which later became the Institute of Industrial Education.

“What was extraordinary is that we did not have so many discussions on the working class but put a lot of energy into education. We started ERA, there was an emphasis on literacy and education and Study Project of Christianity in Aparthied Society (SPRO-CAS) helped sustain this. In the process of all of this what emerged was a new set of ideas. The guy who helped Black Consciousness groups to come to terms with what they wanted was Rick Turner, he helped to define the debates and established a method of work, he was extraordinary for that. It was also a period of the revival of South African Congress of Trade Unions.” said Badsha. No amount of the oppressor’s energy will break the spirit of the oppressed; even the architect of Apartheid in South Africa, Hendrik Verwoerd failed to kill the spirit of the Africans during his incumbency. In 1958 the then deputy president of African National Congress, Oliver Reginald Tambo, responding to Verwoerd’s many of speeches which sought to heighten oppressive laws by writing: “But every discriminatory law passed, every hardship imposed on the people has not been able to kill their spirit to continue with the just struggle to make South Africa a democracy where every section of the population will enjoy freedom.” It is this spirit that Badsha channels in his work: that of resilience and stoicism.

“What was extraordinary is that we did not have so many discussions on the working class but put a lot of energy into education. We started ERA, there was an emphasis on literacy and education and Study Project of Christianity in Aparthied Society (SPRO-CAS) helped sustain this. In the process of all of this what emerged was a new set of ideas. The guy who helped Black Consciousness groups to come to terms with what they wanted was Rick Turner, he helped to define the debates and established a method of work, he was extraordinary for that. It was also a period of the revival of South African Congress of Trade Unions.”

-Badsha

By fighting for the restoration of their humanity they, the people of his generation and those before them, have attempted to unlock the restoration of generosity. In other words, his work is part of the battle to restore humanity to the people it encounters. As Freire asks: “Who are better prepared than the oppressed to understand the terrible significance of an oppressive society? Who suffer the effects of oppression more than the oppressed? Who can better understand the necessity of liberation?” The reality is that they could not have gained this liberation by chance, but only through the praxis of their expedition for it, through their recognition of the necessity to fight for it. “And this fight because of the purpose given it by the oppressed,” observed Freire, “will actually constitute an act of love opposing the lovelessness which lies at the heart of the oppressors’ violence. Lovelessness even when clothed in false generosity.”

When introducing his most famous book Pedagogy of The Oppressed, Paulo Freire, the revolutionary scholar affirmed that: “The radical, committed to human liberation, does not become the prisoner of a ‘circle of certainty’ within which reality is also imprisoned. On the contrary, the more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can better transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, and to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.” (Freire, 1968) This explains the role of Omar Badsha, also in his recent contribution to the human capital and development by establishing the modernised and digitalised information centre called South African History Online – SAHO.

In his debut essay photography book titled Letter to Farzanah which was born of a letter to his daughter, Badsha wrote: “We live in a society in which not a day goes by when we are not called upon to make decisions which tax our commitment and our principles. If we profess to live by our ideals then there is no escape from our situation.” Omar Badsha believes in the greatness of humankind and remains resolute that ‘we either follow the dictates of conscience and remain free, or see ourselves continuously stripped of our self-respect and dignity’. The book was, unsurprisingly, banned by the Apartheid government immediately after its release.

Every path to freedom of thought and soul has vocation, whereby an aptitude constantly negated, yet it is asserted by that very nullification. It is denied by injustice, exploitation, oppression, and the violence of the oppressors; it is asserted by the thirst of the oppressed for freedom and justice, and by their struggle to recover their lost humanity. The Apartheid regime did not succeed in oppressing the thinking tanks of Badsha and his contemporaries like Ahmed Timol, Suliman ‘Babla’ Saloojee and many others. As an artist, he didn’t want to exhibit his work in the segregated venues and state sponsored international events.

In this exhibition, Badsha presents to the Johannesburg audience, a series of iconic pencil and crayon drawings, books, paintings, original prints and photographs. An eye trained in the South African arts activism or movements immediately remembers Badsha’s art contemporaries of the 60s such the enigmatic Dumile Feni, Julian Motau, Ezrom Legae and others. Omar Dadsha’s practice as an artist, like his contemporaries, is persuasively located at a crossover between African sensibility and reference on one hand and universalist preoccupations of international modernism. He predominantly worked outside the white-dominated commercial galleries circuit. No surprise his retrospective show is hosted by a public institution, Museum Africa.

Khehla Chepape Makgato is a Joburg-based independent artist and arts writer, contributing articles regularly to <ART AFRICA> and <The Journalist> online publications. He works at Assemblage Studios and is the founder of Samanthole Creative Projects & Workshop, a community-based art organisation where he facilitates and coordinates arts and literacy outreach programmes for the youths.

Source: http://ampersandonline.co.za/2016/05/18/seedtime-retrospective/