'Portrait of a Young Thwasa' (2008) is one of the photographs in 'Footprints' that emphasise everyday black life in South Africa
Image: Andrew Tshabangu 'Portrait of a Young Thwasa' (2008) is one of the photographs in 'Footprints' that emphasise everyday black life in South Africa

The Standard Bank Gallery in downtown Johannesburg is quiet when I arrive on a Thursday morning to interview photographer Andrew Tshabangu about his show Footprints.

School children are being given a guided tour and I wonder how much they might be able to appreciate Tshabangu's carefully selected series of photographs covering over two decades of his work, not just for what the images show - familiar and sometimes deceptively mundane scenes of everyday life: the exteriors of hostels, the interiors of rooms, the spaces of a Johannesburg in transition, the life of people in the countryside, the religious practices of South Africa and the relationship of people to water - but for what they do not.

Curated by Thembinkosi Goniwe, the show consists of a number of series that display Tshabangu's distinctively meditative but carefully selected and composed images that emphasise ordinary black life in South Africa, highlighting his contribution to a genre of photography that Goniwe has described as "the bearable lightness of being black in the world".

When Tshabangu arrives a few minutes later he describes his early career as a photographer for the New Nation in the '90s, at a time when "the country was burning due to so-called 'black on black' violence, but at the same time I lived in the township and life carried on. People were going to church; people were going to shebeens and doing their own daily rituals".

"In as much as there was the violence that dominated the mainstream media, I didn't recognise myself or my community in those images and so I kind of decided to dedicate my gaze to photographing the quieter moments of daily life within the continent."

With the help of mentor and influence Santu Mofokeng, Tshabangu's work was included early on in his career in international exhibitions and over more than two decades he has travelled and documented his experiences, from his home in Dube, Soweto, to Mozambique, Malawi, Reunion and New York.

In a series like "Interiors", Tshabangu asks his audience to imagine the types of people who might inhabit the rooms he's photographed by virtue of the ways in which they've arranged their possessions.

In his "City in Transition" series he documents a period in Johannesburg in 2004 when the city, having shed its high-apartheid, capitalist-centre history, was developing a new identity as an open city full of migrants from both the hinterlands of South Africa and the continent as a whole.    

Growing up in Soweto, Tshabangu was not one of the people who made annual pilgrimages back to the rural areas and so, curious, he went to the rural areas of the country for his series "Emakhaya" to investigate the rhythms of daily life in these places — creating a series of images that are simultaneously eternal and immediate in their documentation of a continuing simplicity of life that, in spite of the historical pressures placed upon it, has its own dignity and well-founded logic.

Without any didactic prompting the series also provokes a conversation with the work dealing with the city and hostels and invokes the centuries-old economic dependence of one upon the other.

The final series in the show, which deals with people's relationship to water, is an on-going project featuring photos taken in New York, Malawi and Durban. Its title, "Water is Ours", was conceived in reaction to the infamous comments made by Penny Sparrow but, although Tshabangu happened to be in Durban at the time, the series was not inspired by her but rather by his curiosity about black people's relationship to water, having grown up in a landlocked township.

For Tshabangu, "it's an ongoing project. I'm interested in how human beings deal with water whether for economic, spiritual, fun or other reasons".

'Footprints' is on at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg until April 29.


This article was originally published by the Sunday Times.You can view the original article here.

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