On 18 February 2017 the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg will host an exhibition that covers the last twenty years of South African photographer Andrew Tshabangu’s career. Born in 1966, Tshabangu has played a significant role in redefining the visual landscape of South Africa, working alongside the likes of Bob Gosani, Ernest Cole, Peter Magubane, Alfred Kumalo, Omar Badsha, Santu Mafokeng, and David Goldblatt. While his black and white photography has certain ‘documentary’ qualities, Tshabangu’s work lends itself to a more poetic vocabulary, and is often described within the framework of magic realism and surrealism.
Titled ‘Footprints,’ the exhibition attempts to look at Tshabangu’s work as a series of impressions, encounters, traces, and moments in time, rather than attempting to place the work within any specific dichotomy. “It’s a combination of those and other things,” explains the exhibition curator Thembinkosi Goniwe, “so it’s important to see it in that light, as a visual way of capturing and narrating Tshabangu’s photographic tracks without closing them off.”
ART AFRICA: The two of you first met in 2001 at Bag Factory in Johannesburg. That was fifteen years ago. You’re currently putting together a show that looks at the last twenty years of Andrew’s practice. How has your process changed over time? Is your subject matter much the same?
Andrew Tshabangu (AT): Even if it varies, the subject matter is interrelated, but of course the gaze might be different. In terms of aesthetics, there is an evident relation, but the streets are my studio. I work in different streets throughout the world, and at different times, so there are bound to be differences. The ideas and the reasons for photographing, however, are still the same in a way.
Thembinkosi Goniwe (TG): Andrew's saying, 'the street is his studio,' is a poetic way of thinking about how he works from one moment to another, how he navigates certain passages, certain paths. He has shot in Soweto, Johannesburg, Namibia, Réunion Island, Maputo, Malawi, so he moves. In my view his is not a photography that records things. It’s a photography that captures moments, but also involves a way of framing; the camera angles, the lighting, the composition and so forth.
Whether you’re in Malawi or Réunion Island, the act of photographing happens somewhere in between yourself and the subject. Is your aim to be more of a fly on the wall or to have a relationship with your subject?
AT: I prefer to have a conversational relationship with the people that I photograph. There are moments, however, where it is good to be a fly on the wall. When I photograph spirituality for example
– especially the amaZion [a religious group here in South Africa], who don’t have formal buildings of worship – sometimes the service is held at the member’s house. The space is tiny, so in that instance you have to be a fly on the wall. It really depends on where I am at a particular time, but I prefer to have that conversation, to be visible to the people that I photograph.
How much time do you spend working on these projects in each of the various places you travel? Is ‘projects’ the right term to describe them?
AT: For lack of a better word let’s use projects. I photograph mostly at home, so I don’t necessarily need to stay two or three months. These are my communities; I know them very well. Whenever I do travel to places like Maputo, Mozambique, or Malawi, it’s important to have conversations with people, to feel and understand them. I worked on a project between South Africa and Réunion Island alongside another photographer, René-Paul Savignan, whom I’d met in Bamako in 1996. The project, titled ‘Bridges,’ focused on spirituality, both in South Africa and Réunion. René-Paul speaks French, and knows the island very well. While there he is like a guide for me – I rely on his hand, because this is a space that he knows, and even after two or three months on my own I won’t have that access without him.
I understand the landscape of South Africa, so when he’s here I do the same for him. Whenever you are in a new space you cannot be arrogant and pretend that you know it by yourself, so I always like to have conversations with the locals. I did another project in Kibera, Nairobi, and I don’t think I would have made it on my own. My friends there helped me to navigate the corners of Kibera, because they understand the language and lifestyle.
I guess having someone who you can trust within a space that’s new to you allows you to appreciate the experiential aspect of it, to get lost in a space…
AT: Yes, and to be childlike. Like a child that relies on the elders, on friends – total trust to help you to understand the space.
Once you’ve taken all these images there’s a selection process that needs to happen. How do you [Thembinkosi], as the curator, stitch these various images together in order to try see the picture in it’s entirety?
TG: Before we speak about the exhibition it’s important to map out some of the key themes or projects Andrew has produced over the years. He is known for his spiritual and religious scenes, the indigenous ways in which Africans perform or practice religion.
‘Bridges’ explores the thematics between two different places, crossing over different levels of existence; the physical, spiritual, material, as well as the dream world, faith, beliefs and so forth. So his work should not be thought of in terms of a dichotomy, here and there or now and then. It’s a world that co-exists, but operates at different levels.
There’s another series, ‘City in Transition.’ Here Andrew shot the urban environments of Soweto and inner-city Johannesburg. Like ‘Bridges,’ there are always some themes that one can extract, such as people queuing for taxis or the street vendors. The vendors are ‘informal’ markets, initiatives that people make in a city where they are not allowed or cannot afford to enter the 'formal' economy. The photographs are concerned with the interaction between these different economies and livelihoods, and the vibrancy that comes with it. In ‘Emakhaya,’ another series which depicts rural life in South Africa, Andrew captures people going about their daily activities, brewing beer for a particular ceremony or ritual. There’s also the ‘Interiors’ series. In most of these images the inhabitants are absent but you feel a sense of their presence, by the way people organise their lives. The last series is ‘Water is Ours,’ a new body of photographs taken on the seaboards of Maputo, Malawi, and Durban. These are the five photographic series’ the exhibition is thought through and designed around.
Whether his focus is on spirituality, water, or things in movement, there always seems to be something happening ‘outside’ the frame, so to speak. Would ‘transcendental’ be a word that you use to describe Andrew’s photography?
TG: Yes, There are those elements, but I don’t think it’s as easy as that. I want to think of transcendental in terms of the beyond, a visual effect or affect most of the photographs have. One of the things Andrew does with his photography is not focus on the spectacle, the so-called grand- narratives. He’s more into the ordinary, the things we tend not to pay attention to. His preoccupation is with quieter subjects. I’m thinking of these quiet subjects as minor narratives. Not minor because they are not important, but because they are not part of the billboards, the mainstream, the front covers of magazines, the television screens… These quieter things are part of the everyday social practices. Even when he photographs the religious ceremonies, it’s not to instruct or record. It’s to create a space, an entry path that we can begin to think of the moments, places, and practices of the people he deals with. The work opens up to various avenues that we can begin to explore.
Andrew, can you take us through the ideas that you were processing or working with for ‘City in Transition’? What is it that we should think about when engaging with the development of this project?
AT: ‘City in Transition’ is mainly about Johannesburg. It could’ve been titled ‘Johannesburg in Transition.’ At the time the city was abandoned, either by the building owners or the authorities. There was an absence of white people, or if you want, whiteness. People were saying that the city was not functioning, because certain people, certain races, were not visible. From the outside, Johannesburg was perceived as one of the most dangerous cities in the world. My approach was to say that yes, there’s an absence of this other stuff, but the city is functioning.
Johannesburg is a meeting point for most people – especially ordinary people – who connect with it from different townships, going into different suburbs to go and work. People are accessing the city, either from or to the townships, and people are making businesses there, creating a Johannesburg from their own experiences, not from the experiences of what a city is ‘meant’ to be like, but from the experiences that have brought them there.
TG: You’re talking about Joburg as a meeting point – not only for people around Gauteng, but also people from the Eastern Cape, KZN, the Western Province and the rest of the continent. There’s a tendency to always see that in terms of only black people. There’s also an influx of Europeans, Americans, people from different parts of the world that have made Joburg either a temporary settlement or a permanent home. Joburg is also a point of exchange, of interactions. But your focus is on black people, a constant subject that you have photographed even outside South Africa. I would like you to take us now to ‘Bridges,’ your collaboration with René-Paul Savignan.
AT: In 1996 I was invited to show in Bamako, Mali. The photographs that I exhibited there were curated by Santu Mofokeng, as part of the second edition of the African Photo Festival. I was young and wild, in the sense of partying, and it was really my first time outside of South Africa. My personal time was spent in bars, where I met René. Most of my work that was there was around spirituality, and he picked up on that. I think it was him who proposed the idea of working together, which we’ve been doing ever since.
The title ‘Bridges’ was inspired by Dianne Reeves’ 1999 album of the same name. We borrowed it as a working title, but it also talks to the work – the bridges between South Africa and Réunion Island, more specifically these two different religious aspects. In Réunion Island I worked closely with Hindus, Afro-Malagasys (people from Madagascar who lived and practiced their religion in Réunion), and part of the community from Mayod, a neighbouring island, also practising their African religions. At home I worked with Sangomas, Catholics, Zions, and other western Christian faiths that were Africanised through appropriation by Africans. They made it their own. Some of my family – cousins, aunts, and so forth – are also members of the amaZion religion and the same applies to Sangomas.
Between the various religious groups that you were working with, do you find that a lot of people practiced an adaptive spirituality? I’m thinking here in relation to Steve Biko’s The Church as seen by a young layman, and his critic of Christianity as a tool of the oppressor.
AT: I don’t think everyone goes to church or practices religion for the same reasons. I photograph them, and perhaps at the end it is me who frames these ideas and so forth.
I’ve been photographing from my point of view, but I cannot speak for a person who is in a certain state within a photograph and then oppose my own opinion on that particular person. Of course, I do have an opinion on the whole process, but I cannot say to my aunt, “Stop going to that church because it’s an oppressor’s religion.” My aunt and mother have been raised like that and have made it their own. It helps them in whatever way it helps, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a personal opinion.
For me it’s like an orgasm. An orgasm is a personal thing. You cannot have an orgasm on behalf of anyone, even if you fake it, so believing is a personal thing as well. You can invite me to your church, and maybe I’ll go just to please you or to get closer to you, but that doesn’t mean that I embrace it.
TG: Perhaps another way of thinking about it is regarding the lived experiences of individuals and how they negotiate influences of various kinds. There is no culture that is immune from influences and exchanges; hence words such as appropriation, acculturation, hybridity, and so forth. If you zone into the histories of Christianity
– Protestants, Anglicans, Catholics – if you zone into their details, you’ll see traces of various attributes that have been assimilated and with some, written out over time. In the modern world Christianity is not a purely European religion. The whole modern project itself is a formation of a variety of things, from Asia, Latin America, Africa and other places. Some of the European churches fought for dominion for certain things that should stay and for others that should not. I don’t see why that is strange when taking place in other parts of the world, such as in South Africa, Nigeria, or Latin America, where you find indigenous people appropriate religious practices that came with missionaries. What we see today is a fusion of different religious and cultural elements to form something particular; it’s just that the times when Europe went through appropriation processes are so distant and erased that Europe seems unthinkable as a hybrid construct. The beautiful thing about the now is that we are witness to this moment whereby these processes that are taking place are not too far removed. Hybridisations operate at multiple levels. On one level, as individuals, and on another, through the formation of groups where people start to share, identifying certain virtues or values that they start to package, to formalise. This is visible through costumes, uniforms, flags, logos, badges… On one hand it is personal, and on the other it becomes institutionalised, one way or another.
AT: I would like to pick up on this idea of uniforms. I remember doing a residence in London around 1998. I was living in Brixton and had not decided what I was going to do with my residency and how I was going to approach it. One Sunday afternoon sitting inside a pub I saw this guy wearing white robes or garments. That image reminded me of similar images of people coming out of church in Soweto, Alexander, and other townships in South Africa. After this encounter I photographed the Celestial Church, whose origins are from West Africa, in particular Nigeria. Doing that work was like reversing the meaning of missionaries, in the sense of us Africans becoming missionaries to ourselves even when traveling to the new world. Even if Africans travel through spaces outside Africa, they take their spirituality or religion with them, so I titled it Missionaries to Ourselves.
TG: Perhaps now we should talk about the third series, ‘Emakhaya.’
AT: Growing up, people that were visiting the villages would say “I’m going Emakhaya,” meaning “I’m going home.” My parents were not from Emakhaya, and most of my friends at the time were going to the different villages to visit their families. For a long time that was missing in my mind, so this idea of photographing Emakhaya stems from that lack of identity growing up, when all of the other kids were visiting their grannies and relatives in the villages. This stayed with me for a long time and that’s why I did that, as a project. My first entry into ‘Emakhaya’ was in Venda, but I visited different villages across the country; in KZN, Limpopo, the Eastern Cape and so on. My approach was to look at daily-life in these areas, because I’m curious what life here is like.
TG: Are there particular moments, set-ups, people, or activities that you consider worth paying attention to, in the photographs that make up ‘Emakhaya’?
AT: This series is mainly photographs of people brewing traditional beers and so forth, but it’s not necessarily like I only concentrated on that. Some were chosen for their strength, speaking more around my aesthetics and framing devices, but I also concentrated on other ordinary activities, such as people working on their lands, watching their cattle, or in communal spaces. For spatial reasons we are limited by the number of photographs that we have to choose for exhibition, and therefore select images we think will work. We’re wanting to fuse images that will talk more about the processes of working.
TG: Let’s talk about the ‘Interiors’ series. How did you approach some of the quieter things that are at play in these interiors?
AT: When I was invited to a residence in Nairobi, one of my decisions was to photograph the interiors of Kebira. Through these spaces I wanted to talk about Kebira – what it is, and who the people are that live there. I was looking at how people deal with their spaces, and how a space can tell us about the kind of person who lives there; how one arranges their bed, their kitchen, their prize possessions, their fantasies…
Were there any ties between this project and the ‘Emakhaya’ series?
AT: Not really. This series was also shot in South Africa, where I was mainly photographing the interiors of hostels. In most cases the people who inhabit these spaces are people from the villages who would come to Johannesburg to seek work. Most people are housed at hostels when they arrive in the city and the hostel authorities only provided a bed, a communal kitchen and a communal shower. Their savings are taken home for their children and so forth. No human beings deserve to stay in these hostels, even today. But in emakhaya there is no industry, because of the circumstances, so people are forced to come and live in the cities. That is probably the only relationship between ‘Emakhaya’ and the hostels – it is people from these villages who come and seek work in Johannesburg, and Africanise the city in a way that suits them.
I find it interesting that you’ve chosen to photograph the interiors of these spaces, because it’s the ‘same people’ that were in ‘Emakhaya,’ which was shot in a communal setting that still made sense to the private life of the person, rather than the space.
TG: There are these overlaps, not only of the subject matter but also the aesthetic choices Andrew makes, which I find fascinating. In
‘City in Transition’ there is that element of being inside, framing the outside or looking at the rear view mirrors. You do get that in
‘Emakhaya’ too, where you shoot from the inside but you look toward the open doors, where the light is strong.
AT: I don’t think it’s a conscious decision. When I photograph I don’t necessarily think of my previous photographic projects. I just focus on that particular moment. My latest series, ‘Water is Ours’ is an ongoing project, but the idea is perhaps more related to the idea of ‘Emakhaya.’ In Johannesburg we don’t have a beach. When people talk about the beach we think of Durban. I’ve also photographed in Mozambique, Malawi, Réunion, and some in New York, looking at the relationship between the beach and us as human beings, what we get from the beaches as a site of pleasure, spirituality, even economically.
TG: I’m also interested in the way in which these images seem to open up space to wonder, inviting curiosity. I’m talking visually, compared to say ‘Emakhaya.’ There is this beautiful stillness, this sense of the serene, and yet even in that, there’s something haunting about these images. Even with the fishers, there is this sense that something is going on, this invisible yet present spirit. What goes on in your head when you frame and capture these images? I know these are still ongoing, they have not yet been on the wall so that you are still able to look at and distance yourself from them.
AT: It’s difficult sometimes. In ‘Water’ I was travelling to these places – Maputo and Malawi in particular – and I was by myself, so I suspect I was quite shy. As someone not from the sea, my mind travels with its vastness and scope, hence there’s a lot of space. It’s something that the sea does to me.
TG: With ‘Emakhaya’ there is this travelling too. I think you put it quite aptly, that there is a sense of distance between you and your subjects, even with the sea and the people, a metaphorical distance. With those images, especially those of the water, there’s something that just keeps on travelling, even when you reach the horizon where the water and sky meet, you still keep travelling. It makes one think about the question of transcendence, the beyond, of how we subject ourselves to imagine things, because that’s also what faith is about; there are these other worlds beyond the physical confines or the material circumstances which hold us.
'Footprints' will be on show at Standard Bank Art Gallery, Johannesburg from 18 February to 29 April 2017.