Emmanuel Kant would have been distraught if he were to see Omar Badsha’s work.
Neither great beauties nor scenic vistas meant to evoke sublime pleasure were the focus of Badsha’s camera. His eye—sharp and contentious as his tongue is known to be—cuts through the cultural baggage that trains us to look at the beautiful and the acceptably pretty.
When we look at Badsha’s image of a garment worker standing in a hollow of darkness, her elbows resting on piled up cardboard boxes, her fingers intertwined and resting against her face in a gesture that we associate with prayer, we see this woman’s exhaustion, her despair, her supplication to a God who may be one of the few assurances in her life. Her body is tented by a shapeless uniform meant to fit the masses, and a long apron is fitted around the lower half of her body. Her hair is covered with a cotton doek, and it is the only thing on her uniformed, be-apronned body that is decorative – we can see a pattern of flowers peeking through the folds. But mostly, her face is obscured: by the hands that sit just under her fine, small nose, and the right thumb, stretched out to cradle her lower lip and cheek. Her lower face, and the shape of her jaw are lost to the black shadow around her. But she, and the boxes from the garment factory – those objects on which her livelihood depends – are bathed in an otherworldly light. Perhaps, she is working the night shift, and the source of that light is from a fluorescent light. But here, in this moment, she is god’s child, in communion with the Divine.
I first encountered Badsha’s work at the International Center for Photography in New York, in December 2012 (Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life, Sep 14, 2012 – Jan 06, 2013). There, in a display case, was a treasure: A Letter to Farzanah – (published in 1979 in commemoration of the United Nations’ International Year of the Child) – sixty-seven images and twenty-seven newspaper articles describing the lives of both Black and White South African children. Badsha collected this to serve as a record of the country into which his first daughter, Farzanah, was born; the cover consists of a photograph of his Tadkeswar-born grandmother with her newborn great-granddaughter in her arms: her face and body are curved in a sickle moon in their expression of doting love, the brightness from a window behind her setting alight the hopes she has for this fourth generation South African of Gujarati ancestry. She, a Nakhuda descendent of sea captains and navigators who travelled Surat, Africa and Aden, must have had hopes that her great granddaughter—this last generation on which she will lay eyes—will find a restful home here in this southern outpost. Together, the images and articles within Letter are both a love letter and an admonition to Badsha’s new daughter; it is a lamentation for the country and the historical moment into which she was born, yet also a finger-wagging exhortation: to not collapse under hopelessness, but to raise up her fist and do something.
Since that first experience with Badsha’s photographs, I learned that he is known for having fashioned a new visual vocabulary for translating the lives of those that apartheid excluded out of South Africa’s consciousness; often, the public whom he photographed may not have even realised that they were excised into the periphery of the nation’s vision of itself, nor have had the luxury of imagining themselves as part of the national narrative. The South African National Gallery’s invitation to his retrospective exhibition of drawings, woodcuts, and photographic essays from the mid-1960s to 2000s, titled “Seedtime” (Iziko South African National Gallery, 24 April until 2 August 2015) includes a characteristic Badsha photograph: that of a thin-limbed man, lying on a pallet, comatose after a day’s work. Above him, a line of drying clothes.
This is the first time that Badsha’s drawings are juxtaposed next to his documentary photographic essays. His work, though mostly devoted to South Africa, includes life in far-flung places as well. Included in this exhibition are images from the Walking on Water: Migrants and travelling stories project: photographs of twin communities across the Indian Ocean – one, the city of Harar, Ethiopia and the other, Tadkeshwar, a small town in Gujarat, India (and the birthplace both sets of Badsha’s grandparents who emigrated to South Africa). The ancient communities of Harar and Tadkeshwar reflect a small portion of the subaltern world: tied by the voyages that the monsoon and the dhow allowed between the two shores of the Ratnakara – the “forger of gems”, as the Indian Ocean is known to maritime people along the Indian Ocean rim – and subsequently, connected by a history of shared colonial and post-colonial displacements that continue to this day; both draw their small wealth and continuation from the remittances that family members sent back from their new homes in far away places. Their inhabitants’ energetic ire, too, over marriage partners, land disputes, and squabbles over inheritance also continue to maintain centuries-long ties between two sets of people bound by the memory of voyage and loyalty to one’s kin – no matter the distance created by time and ocean.
Though Badsha’s work has been an instrumental part of two books of photography meant to document apartheid conditions and build support abroad (notably, the Second Carnegie Commission on Poverty and Development–sponsored South Africa: The Cordoned Heart, and Beyond The Barricades: Popular Resistance in South Africa — books of photography that fashioned a new visual vocabulary for communicating the story of South Africa), and though he can also claim books of photography bearing solely his name (A Letter to Farzanah, published in 1979, and immediately banned; and his groundbreaking book Imijondolo: a Photographic Essay on forced Removals in South Africa, published in 1984, documenting life in the massive informal settlements in the Inanda area of Durban where he worked as a political activist), and though he is the go-to person that international scholars and curators seek out when looking for information about the history of political documentary photography, he is not one of the big names with which South African photography is associated internationally. The reasons are obvious: few commercial galleries were open to exhibiting the works of black photographers, and no agents came forward to promote black photographers’ work unless it had commercial appeal or spoke to the stereotypes that apartheid – and white supremacy in general – supported. Badsha refused to exhibit in segregated studios, or state-sponsored shows, marginalisng him already as a “difficult” character who didn’t play the game of supplication properly. And during the late ‘60s and ‘70s, unless black photographers took a specific kind of photograph documenting spectacular violence, press agencies didn’t come calling, either. In response to these disparities, in 1982, Badsha and a collective of photographers founded Afrapix, an independent photographic agency that not only helped promote black photographers on the international circuit, but played a significant role in documenting South Africa’s political climate during the 1980s, and shaped the tropes of social documentary photography in the country.
Badsha’s work—along with that of his Afrapix contemporaries—refashioned South Africa in the global eye; and together with his passion for organizing and union work, photography became a strategy of intervention in how the South African struggle against apartheid was seen. He and his contemporaries left the traditional mandates of documentary photographers—to stand apart, and record impersonally. Instead, they began their journeys by positioning themselves first as political subjects who were part of the resistance. Because of that, they were able to gain access into the everyday workings of the anti-apartheid movement, to community meetings, funerals of those who were killed by the South African security forces, and to be witness to ordinary acts of resistance, endurance and survival. Yet, perhaps because Badsha’s interest was in collective organizing, and not personal fame, his own work was not as well recognized.
So we can blame politics for why Omar Badsha’s photographs, or why his life’s work is not known in the same realm as the careers of others. But there’s something else, too, I think. It is Kantian aesthetics that still influences us when we say that certain works have “political” value, and others are “beautiful”; Kant argued that our aesthetic judgments must be based on our disinterest in the object we are viewing: our pleasure in something should not be connected to its ability to be useful, or informative or persuasive in any way. According to the Kantian moral universe, artists who produce with aesthetics as their guiding principle provide us, in these godless times, with the ability to discern and experience beauty as part of an ordered, natural world, and enjoy a moment of transcendence.
However, though Badsha sought to reveal the extraordinary lengths to which the apartheid state went to in order to dispossess black South Africans of land and ability to make a viable living, recording life in the margins of racialised ghettoes where the brutality of apartheid was most evident, his images are not simply those typical in the repertoire of the photojournalist. Rather than following violent flares between black South Africans and the apartheid regime’s police forces, he recorded the dynamics of daily life under apartheid. His images in Imijondolo is a calendar of everyday existence on the frontlines of powerlessness and poverty: here, we see a girl in an ancient hand-me-down dress – the flowery pattern adding little pleasure to her impossible task – carrying small lumps of mud to plaster the walls of her house. Her face and arms are smeared in mud. She balances the ball of mud on her head, with her small arms and hands reaching up, steading herself and the mud on her head. Her expression is that of the Sisiphean warrior: resigned, methodical, carrying on with her balancing act with as much dignity as possible. Among the images of children learning their English lesson in spare classrooms, and diligent, head-bent-in prayer Bible readings in Amouti Primary School, are mirror images of a sari-clad Indian grandmother and a young boy in her charge, and that of a milky-eyed, large-bosomed Zulu pensioner and her tiny grandchild who is busily engaged with exploring the world circumscribed by the woven mat lining the floor of their small mud house. Another is that of a shy, young Indian woman – with a low hairline and as round a face as any Tamil village beauty an ocean over – leaning on the brash confidence of her black husband; their young child scowls at Badsha’s camera. The doorway in front of which they stand is lined with a decorative flounce – the kind I’ve seen often in South Asian homes: a narrow band of cloth, gathered together by a runner of rope, and hung over to top rung of a door: it is not long enough to be a curtain of privacy, but a decorative element indicating an entryway.
Badsha’s images show us that forced removals recognised no difference between Indian, Zulu, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian, and that the alliances forged in the poorest and most marginalised of ghettos of apartheid South Africa may be as powerful and as transgressive as those at the higher echelons of the resistance movement. But his photographs do not create fantasy-pastorals of poor South Africans, either. Here also is the fat landlord, seated on his best chair; above him, framed photographs of his bejewelled Gujarati grandmothers and suit-wearing grandfather. Here, also, is the gun displayed by the local powerbroker and induna, doling out pension payments and favors in the neighborhood.
At the core of the conversations I’ve had with Badsha is his tenacious grip on political integrity, and on directing the aesthetic, intellectual, and educative focus of his photographic projects. Controlling that intellectual authorship, and managing intentionality, despite pressures that international news organisations, local gallery owners, art dealers, and even one’s own ambition to compete with one’s friendly rivals in the world of South African photography is a daunting life project for a photographer. Certainly, challenging established apartheid tropes for art and photography, and documenting the fraying fabric of the national project had obvious risks. And Badsha’s positions and steadfastness to the mission to which he committed himself as a photographer cost him in certain ways, but this wilful desire – to record and be witness to subsumed histories, to walk in with his unapologetically political lens – also maintained his integrity as a narrator of South African history.
* A retrospective of Omar Badsha’s work is currently on show at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town until August 2nd.