© Thabiso Sekgala. Jane Nkuna, Londing (Kwandebele) 2010. Courtesy the artist & The Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
I first met Thabiso Sekgala in June 2013 at The Walther Collection in Neu-Ulm, Germany, during the opening of Distance and Desire: Encounters with the African Archive. At the time, he was living in Germany as a yearlong resident of the International Studio Programme at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. Sekgala traveled to Neu-Ulm with the artist Sabelo Mlangeni, who was also living in Berlin, and whose recent photographs of ceremonial reed dances in KwaZulu-Natal and Swaziland were featured in Distance and Desire. The exhibition considered the history and legacy of early photography in South Africa, dating from the late 1860s to the 1930s, and the complex representations of African subjects, who were variously photographed for ethnographic studies, souvenir postcards, or family keepsakes. Distance and Desire set such historical portraits in dialogue with photography and video by contemporary artists making reference to archival imagery.
Born in 1981, Sekgala studied photography at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg, South Africa, an institution founded in 1989 by the photographer David Goldblatt. (Alumni include renowned figures in contemporary South African photography such as Sabelo Mlangeni, Jodi Bieber, Zanele Muholi, and Nontsikelelo “Lolo” Veleko.) Following his first exhibition at the workshop, Homeland, a meditation on rural South Africa, Sekgala’s work has been presented in such exhibitions as My Joburg at la maison rouge in Paris; Transition at Les Rencontres d’Arles in France; and The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, organized by Okwui Enwezor and shown at the International Center of Photography in New York, Haus der Kunst in Munich, and Museum Africa in Johannesburg. Running, Sekgala’s first solo show with the Goodman Gallery, which was on view in Cape Town in May 2014, included new works created in Germany, Turkey, Jordan, and Zimbabwe.
© Thabiso Sekgala. Koketso, Sehoko in Former Bophuthatswana, 2010. Courtesy the artist & The Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
In his photographs, Sekgala explores the relationship between geography and social identity. He gives his series allusive, meditative titles, and his formal approach to composition is quiet but precise. Working consistently with square-framed, medium format film, he displays a sharpened consideration of geometry, illustrated by aspects in the landscape such as shadows, the painted guidelines on a street, architectural structures, and repetitive details. A portrait from Homeland, in which a young woman’s pose and perfectly centered body makes a “+” sign, is one example; the shadows, crosswalk paint, and picture-within-a-picture of an improvised memorial on a street from Paradise is another. Sekgala also sees echoes across cultures, such as the strangely expressive, yet vacant, assemblage of nude mannequins in a photograph from Amman, and a similar grouping of mannequins on a bridge in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.
© Thabiso Sekgala. Gokitima Gophala ke kgosepela, Bulawayo, 2013. Courtesy the artist & The Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
One of the most fascinating images from Paradise, pictured on the cover of the catalogue published on the culmination of his residency in Berlin, shows several boys on a wooden platform, at a lake near the Tegel Airport. They’re grouped beneath an umbrella covered in graffiti. At first, the theme of this image is carefree youth — the boys are dressed for swimming — but the weathered platform and the graffiti create an atmosphere of decay. The photographer’s point of view is that of the outsider: not a participant in the scene, but a knowing observer. Capturing, in a cinematic gesture, both the faded mythology of “paradise,” and the evanescent notion of belonging to a specific place, the image is representative of Sekgala’s style and mood. As a photographer, he seeks at once to be objective and intimate.
© Thabiso Sekgala. A Paradise, 2013. Courtesy the artist & The Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Brendan Wattenberg | When we met last year, what was your response to seeing the photographs in Distance and Desire? What meanings do nineteenth-century South African portraits have for a young photographer working today?
Thabiso Sekgala | In that exhibition, I like how the idea of how archival photographs were mixed with contemporary photographs by Sabelo Mlangeni, Sammy Baloji, Zanele Moholi, and Santu Mofokeng. I always enjoy looking at the images of The Black Photo Album series by Santu Mofokeng.
In Mofokeng’s slide presentation, The Black Photo Album / Look at Me, which he made in the mid-1990s, we see images of the black middle class in South Africa around the turn of the twentieth century.
What I like about those images is that they complicate the idea that black people during that era were only photographed as passive objects of inspection by the colonizers. The research that Santu Mofokeng did on The Black Photo Album shows the other side of things that you don’t usually see, about Africans in that time and how they pictured themselves. These images also raise questions about who is looking at who, who is photographing who. As much the coloniser introduced photography to Africa, I also think African people started to learn to make images at that time. And, in these images from The Black Photo Album, you see African people being photographed in a very dignified way — the photographer might have been an African or European — but either way the most important thing is that you see portraits of dignity.
In my work, I really like photographing people. When I make portraits, I find a lot of things that interest me: simple things like how people smile and walk, and also the relationship between a subject’s background and their environment. Regardless of where we are, when I make a portrait, it all starts with respect. When I am approaching people to photograph, I approach them as Thabiso Sekgala, as myself first. Then I am a photographer. I always try to portray people in a very dignified way—that’s what I take from The Black Photo Album. I am getting sick and tired of seeing African people being portrayed as victims, or passive people, and always in a bad light.
Do you see those kinds of portrayals mostly in foreign newspapers or websites? Or do you also find negative portrayals of Africans within aspects of South African visual culture?
I think there is a place for everything including reportage about war, poverty, and disease. In Africa, there is a huge economy and infrastructure built around that, so there is a machine that needs to be fed such news. I think every day in most European publications you see such news. The debate is about how Africa is represented; it is about seeing only the negative side to Africa. What I find interesting is when Africans tell their stories out of that trend. As much as there are bad things happening, recently there has been a shift to the kind of stories about Africa that are positive. So, I think now I am interested in alternative ways of telling African stories. And as a photographer myself from Africa, I avoid, those kinds of negative images. My interests are beyond the National Geographic ways of representing places.
In 2012, you traveled with Catherine E. McKinley and Simone Leigh to document contemporary Herero and Himba fashion in Namibia. In Catherine’s account of the experience, she describes the complex feelings of being an outsider in Namibian culture. She also writes that at one point you set up an outdoor studio, shooting passersby for hours. Had you visited Namibia previously? Did you also feel like an outsider? And, if so, does the perceived objectivity of an outsider influence the way you make portraits—whether working in Namibia, Zimbabwe, or Germany?
This trip was my first time in Namibia. As a neighboring country, we share a similar history, so when I was there I felt at home. We were in the hands of good people. I made friends who I could relate to — you get to realise that these borders were created by European colonisers to separate us. As an African in Africa, I don’t want to see myself as an outsider. But, I should also say I am not of the Herero tribe. I am from South Africa and I am from the Basotho tribe. So, in that context I can be an outsider—but the issue of being an insider and outsider, it does not bother me at all. I think, like I mentioned before, being in a different place for me has to start with respect. I want to learn from new places and to bring something of who I am to a place.
© Thabiso Sekgala. During a Christmas Parade (Trupah), Londing Kwandebele, 2009. Courtesy the artist & The Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
One of your most well known projects is called Homeland, which considers the areas of land to which South Africans were once restricted based on race and ethno-linguistic categories. After living and working in Germany and elsewhere, and creating the works collected in the series Paradise and Running, do you find that you see and visualise home differently?
My series Homeland speaks about the idea of looking at where I come from personally, mixed with where we come from politically as a country. The idea of place relates to identity and history. I photograph mostly young people who were born after 1994; we call them “born free.” The idea of photographing young people was about trying to see ordinary people in those places as icons. I Iike finding juxtapositions with the land and people who grew up without the baggage of Apartheid. In South Africa, we were divided geographically, even as people who are of the same origin. For example, my mother was born and grew up in Johannesburg. She lived there her whole life. But when she speaks about home, she refers the homelands (the rural areas) where her parents come from. The old regime created the system that makes Johannesburg seem like it’s not a home, even if you were born there. The idea of home is very complex, and changes depending on who you are and where you come from.
© Thabiso Sekgala. Mawilli, Londing Kwandebele, 2009. Courtesy the artist & The Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
In the announcement for Running, you quote from the poem “Running” by Gil Scott-Heron: “Because I always feel like running, not away, because there is no such place.”
I am always fascinated by poetry, writing, and music written about places or giving homage to a place. As a person you have to come from somewhere. You can come from a place where it only rains once a year, you come from a place where people pray four times a day, from a place where you’re allowed to walk naked on the street but that’s very xenophobic at the same time. You can come from a place where everyone is welcome, and you can come from a place that says after we have colonised them, now we don’t want them in our land. That’s when you realise that the idea of place, home, and where one comes from, is very important.
Photographing places in response to the idea of home fascinates me. I think my series — they feed into each other: Homeland speaks of political and personal importance of a place; Second Transition looks at the economic value of the land in mining areas. In Running and Paradise, I am interested in the notion of the refugee, or looking at the idea of paradise, a place that is not within reach.
© Thabiso Sekgala. Feeling Grey, Afrikanische Strasse, Berlin, 2014. Courtesy the artist & The Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
© Thabiso Sekgala. Love, Near Tegel Airport, Berlin, 2013. Courtesy the artist & The Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
In all of your works from the last several years, you show a methodical attention to form and pattern. In addition, your prints have a consistency in color tone across series from Southern Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, notably muted shades of blue, graphite, and ochre. How did you arrive at this style?
I am mostly working with a medium-format camera and film; I enjoy that format because of the slow pace of working. As much it sounds obvious, the most important thing for me when I am photographing is to think of the medium — meaning photography is about time and light. I take my time to make these photographs.
One film I like in relation to photography is by the Chilean director Patricio Guzmán, called “Nostalgia for The Light.” In the film, there is a part where an astronaut being interviewed speaks of the idea of light and how he does not believe in the present. He mentions that the present does not exist, only the past and the future exist. This is the kind of statement I think of when I take photographs.
I like to photograph as I see things. My approach technically is really to try to capture the essence of the place. To do that, I pay attention to color and the light, whether I am in golden light in South Africa or the pale cold light in Europe. In my approach, I like to work with reality and found situations. I work in documentary mode — I photograph found situations, but I photograph them as if they are staged. I like the tension between reality and fiction, so that the line between a staged and documentary image, truth and myth, is blurred.
Could you give an example of this “blurring” in one of your recent works or series?
In my work I am following a particular narrative, sometimes by placing images of unrelated subjects next to each other. For example, in the series Paradise, there is the image of a guy making food under a blue umbrella in Istanbul, followed by the image of a watering jug in the graveyard in Berlin. One story leads into another. Some images tell their own stories as single images, and others make a collective narrative.
© Thabiso Sekgala. Untitled, Berlin, 2013. Courtesy the artist & The Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Like Sabelo Mlangeni, who has also made images about rural areas in South Africa in his series At Home, you work in a minor key. Your images are contemplative and at times melancholic. The pace is slowed down. In Paradise, did you intend at the outset to bring this sensibility to your portrayal of Berlin and elsewhere?
I am interested in photographs that are not necessarily newsworthy photographs. Coming from South Africa to Berlin, I was not there to discover something. In the series called Paradise, I was always thinking about an African coming to Europe. Whether or not you have your visa, it’s so hard to enter Europe. Sometimes when the plane enters the airport from Africa, there will be police at the door checking your visa.
You hear people saying things like, it does not matter where you come from, we live in the global world, and you can chose anywhere or everywhere to be your home. Then when you enter Europe, you get a reminder about where you come from. I find it ironic that for Europeans to travel elsewhere in the world, especially Africa, it’s so easy. Aliko Dangote, the richest man in Africa, spoke at the recent meeting of the World Economic Forum, where he made an important point: “I need a visa in almost 38 countries, which means an American has more access into Africa than myself.”
In Berlin, where I was living over the last year, many people are fortunate to leave when it’s cold and freezing and take a holiday somewhere with warmer places, like in Africa. They go to a temporary paradise, where they are always welcome because of the passport they have. These are all of the ideas, the places and special politics in all my series, which are merging into each other.
© Thabiso Sekgala. Untitled, Berlin, 2013. Courtesy the artist & The Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
© Thabiso Sekgala. A Home, Afrikanische Strasse, Berlin, 2014. Courtesy the artist & The Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
How did you happen to be invited for a residency in Jordan?
I was invited by a curator called Adriano Pedrosa from Brazil, who I met while he was visiting in Johannesburg. For the program, they invited artists from Africa, South America, Asia, and the Middle East. The program celebrates the 25th Anniversary of Darant Al Fanun (meaning the Home of Art) by Sholah Foundation.
I think when I get to a new place, I am always going with my eyes open. At the same time, you can find similarities and common threads — the common threads between places and cultures interests me. I am always looking for things that I connect with, and also things that are new to me. A new place refreshes your perspective. You learn new things, but most importantly you also have the chance to understand where you come from.
And what was your impression of contemporary art and photography in Jordan?
Most of the artists I met in Jordan were coming from Palestine, so it was interesting to see their work some in response to the conflict between Palestine and Israel. I had the feeling that they’re dealing with issues that South Africans went through during Apartheid. They are faced with a contemporary Apartheid. I came across the work of the Lebanese artist called Walid Raad, of The Atlas Group. I find his work so interesting. I like how he deals with photography, using archived photographs.
Now that your residency in Germany is complete and you’ve just had an exhibition in Cape Town, where do you intend to work next? What landscapes are you looking to explore?
At home in South Africa, I think there are stories to be told beyond Apartheid. I think it’s time for us to move forward from Apartheid — it’s not the only way we can talk about our society. There is a new generation of young people, many of them are artists, who will do anything to make progress, to tell their own stories in very revitalizing ways. I am eager to find new ways of telling stories — it could be photography, video, or filmmaking. We live in interesting times, where possibilities are endless, so we cannot be stuck in one place.
© Thabiso Sekgala. Inside Bulawayo Mall, 2013. Courtesy the artist & The Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Born in 1981, Thabiso Sekgala works and lives in Johannesburg. In 2007 he enrolled at the Market Photo Workshop. In 2010 he was the recipient of the Tierney Fellowship and developed Homeland as a solo exhibition. Sekgala’s monograph Paradise was published in 2014.
Written by Brendan Wattenberg