I am back at Gallery MOMO. This place has slowly become a bit like a second home as come here on the regular to meet with my mentor Karen Bursch. On exhibition is some of Andrew Tshabangu’s work alongside Ayana V. Jackson, Mary Sibande, Florine Demosethene, Joel Mpah Dooh and Raél Jero Salley, as part of a group exhibition which opened on July 21st, 2016, and will close AUG 29th.
I am here to talk to Andrew about some of the work displayed and really get a sense of the man who has been an enigma since I was introduced to his work last year in an interview with Gallery MOMO’s publicist, Juan Terblanche.
Below is an insert of the conversation between Andrew and me, enjoy.
Shots011: Who is Andrew Tshabangu?
Andrew Tshabangu: Hauw Mfethu yimi uAndrew Tshabangu. I’m a father, a brother, I am many things. However, for this purpose; Andrew Tshabangu is a South African photographer born in Soweto (1966) where I still live.
Shots011: Why photography?
AT: Yoh! It wasn’t something I initially wanted to do. Growing up, I wanted to be in the theatre. I applied to the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) to study drama formally. Little did I know that to be accepted to Wits, you need to go through auditions. So, I did the auditions and didn’t do well.
However, I also learned that to be accepted was not based on the auditioning process. You could also submit poetry, scriptwriting, visual art, music or photography, which was then considered as part of your application along with the audition. Many of the individuals who applied did not have access to this information – creating art as a submission.
After learning that one can use art as an addition to the application for Wits I went to the then Alexndra Art Centre, they offered classes in photography, theatre, visual art, music and other disciplines. I attended classes at the Alexandra Art Centre with the hope of studying theatre for a year, in order to reapply at Wits. When I got to the Art Centre, I just went into photography since I thought that it would be easy. All you did was just click, click, click, and then I could create a portfolio and reapply. That’s where it all started.
Shots011: How has the journey that is your career progressed, would you say you are satisfied with the choice you made those many days ago?
AT: I do not think it was a question of satisfaction. As I said, I thought it was going to be easy. Once I started doing it, it soon came with its own challenges. To this day, I still grapple with some of those challenges within photography.
Shots011: What are some of these challenges?
AT: There’s a lot you know. It would be hard to pinpoint them. However, for me, the greatest obstacle was my own thinking. That I was just going to be taking pictures and that was it. I soon learned there was a lot of thought that was involved behind some of the most iconic images. It wasn’t necessarily about taking images but building a story.
For someone who was new to photography, that wasn’t easy. I had to make sure that whatever I was working on was an exciting story. For someone who was new to photography, that wasn’t easy. I had to make sure that whatever I was working on was an exciting story. The stories also had to make sense in terms of aesthetics, and morals.
I had to make sure that whatever I was working on was an exciting story. The stories also had to make sense in terms of aesthetics, and morals.
Shots011: Some of your work is currently being shown at Gallery MOMO as part of a group exhibition. How did that work come about?
I remember it because it was on that Sunday afternoon in Brixton, where I saw people dressed in white; this triggered a memory of Zionists back home in South Africa. Brixton is predominantly populated by black people from the Caribbean Island and West Africa, Nigeria in particular. So I started following them to enquire about where they were going.
Shots011: Did you find any similarities or contrasts in the way they conducted a church service compared to South Africans?
AT: It was different. They express their devotion in a ‘different’ way, however, the idea is the same. These are African Independent Churches not like the missionary churches that were started in Europe, even though I was photographing them in Europe, this church that was founded in Nigeria. The similarities were the use of music and dance which is prevalent in a lot of religions.
Shots011: Looking at your work, you’ve been associated with surrealism in your approach to light and the smokey feel of your images. Was this an idea you had for your work along?
AT: I feel like the idea found me. I do not come from a background of using words such as surrealism or realism. I did not necessarily understand the meaning of the words and sometimes I still don’t.
However, at some point, you read books on these concepts. There are also times where, as a photographer, you are encouraged to shoot in a certain way or like a certain photographer. You are taught not to face the sun, to get clear and clean pictures. I did not want to do any of that, I wanted to bend and break the rules and I think that is how this idea of surrealism came into my work.
Shots011: How then, did the fascination with Danté come about?
AT: I was invited to a show curated by Simon Njami. The idea of the show was based on one of Danté’s poems; The Divine Comedy: Paradise, Purgatory, and Hell. However, before that, I had known nothing about Danté or his work.
Once invited, I started doing my own research about the man. I think my background as a Catholic also opened me up to his work because the ideas of Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell feature prominently within the church as well. In a sense, I understood that, but not how Danté expanded the ideas and reflected that through the poem. The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell are some of the longest poems ever written, and if you do not know about them, I suggest you should read them.
Shots011: Looking at your career, who were the photographers you looked at and which ones influenced you the most?
AT: My thinking has been influenced by a lot of photographers who had a sense of activism within their work. I think it was something that was prevalent in South Africa especially during the time of imizabalazo (the apartheid struggle). So it made sense for me to identify with that kind of work that was created for the liberation of the people.
I also learned a lot from photographers from DRUM Magazine. I also learned a lot from some of the guys at Afrapix. Then there were others abroad such as Eugene Smith, Constantine Manos, Henri-Cartier Bresson and photographers from The Magnum Agency. I was attracted to these photographers and their works because of aesthetics, and others for their consciousness.
Shots011: Looking at your generation of photographers and our current crop, do you find that there are a lot if any, similarities or contrasts?
AT: Even though I was not part of the struggle as such, I was photographing around a time when South Africa was burning. So you couldn’t necessarily be doing this and that. You were conscientious to that kind of work and style.
It should also be remembered that when I started, I wasn’t shooting images of black people as victims per se. Those kind of images had already been popular in mainstream media. I for one did not want to create more of those kind of images and that was how my ‘alternative style’ of photography gained momentum. I realised that I was from the township and I knew that what was written in the newspapers wasn’t the only thing happening in the townships. There were other things. Life was normal and abnormal at the same time. There were state of emergencies and sometimes not.
People from the townships were also doing other things on a day to day basis. On weekends we had the church, some people went to shebeens, and some were attending beauty contests. From this, I decided to focus on those quieter things that were not shown in mainstream media.
From this I decided to focus on those quieter things that were not shown on mainstream media.
With your generation, I do not know much. However, there are some young photographers today who are really doing some interesting projects.
Shots011: If there is one thing you wish you knew at the start of your career, what would it be?
AT: To be patient!
These 10 questions originally came from a French series, “Bouillon des Culture” hosted by Bernard Pivot. They’re better known as the questions that James Lipton asks every guest at the end of “Inside the Actor’s Studio”. Their addition to this questionnaire is to get to know a bit more about Andrew the person, instead of the artist, a bit more about Andrew outside of photography.
What is your favourite word?
What is your least favourite word?
What turns you on creatively?
A good moment.
What turns you off?
What is your favourite curse word?
I do not have one.
What sound or noise do you love?
What sound or noise do you hate?
Umsindo (loud noise).
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I’d like to be a Taxi Driver.
What profession would you not like to do?
I don’t know.
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
To see more of Andrew Tshabangu’s work please visit Gallery MOMO on their website, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Feel free to drop a comment on your thoughts about the interview or other photography legends you would like us to interview.