A day after the opening of Seedtimes: A retrospective, at Museum Africa in Newton Johannesburg, I am standing at one of the tables at the Museum’s entrance to hear what Omar Badsha has to say about his life’s work. The exhibition opened on Friday the 4th of March 2016 and will be on display until December 2016. It is the culmination of 51 years of the artist’s life and career including some of his early paintings and drawings.
Omar and I take a seat in the galleries foyer and we begin talking. He speaks with such calmness and carefully explains his life’s work and the importance of having an exhibition. He goes on to say that “everybody puts an emphasis on my photography but with this exhibition there is a new crop of people who say; we never knew you were an artist. They find what I did to be interesting and inspiring.” The exhibition itself is expansive in that it covers several walls of the museum’s east section on the first floor. I hope you also find the exhibition and the interview as equally inspiring, read on…
Shots011: Who is Omar Badsha?
OB: I am a photographer, I am an artist, I am an activist, and I am a historian. I am a lot of things.
Shots011: You took up photography in 1976, a critical year in South African history, what inspired you to pick up the camera?
OB: Well, I started thinking about photography in 1975 when I was involved in the trade movement and we ran classes for workers. I thought I needed to teach myself photography in order to document what was happening in the union and also put together, for those days, slide-tape shows. So that’s how I started with photography.
However, I’ve always been interested in photography. I’d been an artist since the early ’60s but later stopped doing art because I got involved in the labour movement and the workers struggle. So photography was just another instrument that I could use to say what I wanted to say. After ’76, I began to do it more seriously and learned a little bit more about it and things related to it. I was also surrounded by photographs and cameras because my father and uncle were photojournalists, even though I had never taken photographs when I was younger.
Shots011: You seem to have a love for the preservation of history; where does that stem from?
OB: Well it’s partly the preservation of history but popularizing history too. It’s about rewriting history, and it’s not a hobby. I work in an organization– which is a Non-Governmental Organization– which is committed to rewriting history and making it accessible to the people. We make sure that the history can be utilised by young people in schools.
Our website South African History Online has a lot of information on the history of South Africa. The entire history curriculum is available online to download and it’s free. We also have a history class where students and teachers can come in and learn what is related to their curriculum.
Shots011: What led to the idea of creating a website?
OB: I’ve always been interested in history, to use history and make people aware of the past and how struggles were conducted. When we started organising ourselves in the trade union movement, history was part of our discussions with workers. We made references to history and how workers in the past had organised, what had happened to those organizations, and why they died.
After 1990, and especially after 1994, a few of us began to talk about building an archive to make the younger generation aware of the past, of the struggle. So people such as Phyllis Naidoo, Govan Mbeki and other friends of mine had this discussion. Phyllis began writing and publishing the information in small booklets.
I then saw the possibility of using the emerging internet technology to put up the material for two reasons 1) New history needed to be written and could be easily accessible 2) I was very committed to the idea of free information.
The whole system that we had was tied to school books and the whole industry. It meant that a new country and a democracy like ours had to put in a lot of money for the production of books, which didn’t make sense to me. Then I thought, we should invest and put material online and that could make it accessible. Not many people had access to the internet then, it was very slow and very expensive. I then argued that we had been creating the material for three years and that’s when the schools should have access to it. I didn’t realise then how quickly the technology would evolve because now we have smartphones and you can download the material directly on your phone.
The idea was to make history accessible and largely directed to that constituency of our education and through that education, to the youth. It was also a platform for ordinary people to tell their own stories so it becomes a People’s History website and not just an academic exercise. Over the years, it has grown and has become one of the most popular history websites and projects.
The idea was and still remains; the rewriting of our history and making it accessible.
Shots011: How big of a role has the camera played in your role of rewriting history?
OB: Photography has become part of life in this country, and around the world, since the late 1880s. So photography becomes one very important way of capturing both public and private history. From the 1900s and in South Africa in particular, we began using photography to document all aspects of South African life, but it was done from a particular perspective– a largely white capitalist perspective.
You have a very massive archive of life recorded by photographers which has become part of our historical memory. It has also become an important source of information because one can look at a photograph and begin to interpret what life or an era looked like hundred years ago. Like some of the photographs found here in this museum. So photography has become an aid and part of our collective memory.
After 1990, it became an important way of unearthing history, the history of apartheid and the struggle against it. So photography is central to history.
Shots011: When you started, you were working with film and we now live in a digitally saturated world, is there a difference, and has this affected the way you work?
OB: There is a fundamental difference in the technical part of it. But in essence, it’s the same. You’re dealing with capturing light. It’s just that there is a technical and technological advancement.
The invention of the 35mm camera in the 1920s and ‘30s changed the way people photographed the world and it’s the same now. With the digital technology, we now have cameras that capture great quality images which fit into your pocket. I use my cell phone to take pictures all the time.
In my case, I find it easier to use digital cameras largely because I have a problem with my eyes, with focusing and things like that. The technology with digital cameras is much better than analogue. But they are similar in some respect.
Shots011: Most of your work is in black & white, what has been the reason behind that?
OB: When I started taking photographs black and white film was the cheapest. And it was very exciting to be in a darkroom. Sometimes it was more exciting when you had somebody else with you. Colour transparencies were very exciting to work with but very expensive so I never really got to work with colour.
Shots011: Your current exhibition, Seedtimes, is a retrospective of your life’s work. What were some of the ideas and feelings you wanted to communicate through this exhibition?
OB: For me, to have a retrospective or any exhibition is a challenge but at the same time very gratifying. Everybody puts an emphasis on my photography but with this exhibition there is a new crop of people who say; we never knew you were an artist. They find what I did interesting and inspiring. That’s very gratifying. I had a conversation with a young man who came up to me and said he loved some of my drawings and what I was doing. It was a short discussion and didn’t have a chance to talk further but it’s those sorts of responses that are gratifying. Exhibitions are an important platform to relate to people.
You must remember that my generation of artists, some of us, were concerned about making art a part of black people. We didn’t want it to be seen as something separate from their everyday lives. Exhibitions were an effort to expose young people and black people to galleries, art, and photography. We did this work for this audience. We also exhibited in communities so that we could begin to expose people to the work and the arts.
When I started out people would ask; what career is this? Where are you going to? Is it going to make money? How will you make a living? It didn’t, but we did it still. It becomes gratifying that there is an audience and a new audience who find inspiration from your work. That’s very gratifying. That’s all you can ask for.
Shots011: In 1982 you then helped form Afrapix, what was the objective of the agency?
OB: Our aim was to establish a collective to promote documentary photography and an agency to sell and distribute our work. My own concern was that we had to make sure we document what was happening in the country– in light of issues like state repression and the general socio-economic conditions. State repression was my particular concern because when I was in Durban, I was an activist and saw that there were things taking place in the townships that were not being recorded or making the newspapers at all. It meant that we had to get into those hard to reach areas because we didn’t live there. We recorded what was happening in the areas we lived in but not in the townships.
Then when I got to Joburg, I discussed this with a friend of mine who was working as part of Ravan Press which was in the same building as Staffrider Magazine. I raised these issues and said that this is my idea; we should be actually building a network of photographers and then publicize what was happening. From there, a slightly larger meeting was called and a decision to form the collective and an agency was made. The objective was to document what was happening and to distribute it as widely as possible.
It was also to train young photographers to tell their stories in a much more complex way. To document what was happening in their communities, especially with regard to the state repression.
That’s how Afrapix grew.
Shots011: What do you think is the role of the photograph in today’s ever-changing landscape and country?
OB: There are many roles and many ways in which photographs are used. At the end of the day you want people to look and appreciate what you have done.
I’ve become part of the people who have become critical of the whole movement we have built and that it has lost its way. I’ve worked with the current president; Jacob Zuma. And I know him very well. But I find his lack of politics very boring. So my politics now is one that says what is happening now must stop. I am like many of the student movements that are re-examining all the values and questioning the practices. We are looking to come up with a whole new set of strategies to change the system. Because we can’t leave it as it is.
The important thing in photography or art is learning. My generation learned and we had to learn in conditions that are not similar to what we have now. We had to create underground study groups, but we learned. We read a lot of literature, economics, and sociology.
Sociology is very important for your generation of photographers because it is a discipline that begins to allow you to look very carefully at what you are photographing. It allows for critical thinking but most importantly critical listening. You’ve got to learn to listen to people and get down to a level where you can interact with the people you’re photographing.
You also have to understand a little bit more so you have to read a lot. You’ve got know your craft and its history. You’ve got to know what it means when you say you are going to work as a documentary photographer. How does one go about doing a project? A lot of how the project unfolds depends on your understanding of what you want to get at. Or how you understand what you are seeing in front of you.
Here’s a very crude example: If you’re photographing on the margins of our society and among the very poor; who are these people? How did they become poor? What does poverty mean? When you look at poverty it’s not just a lack of food. There is a whole cultural aspect to it. Also, a lot of people become poor when they become sick and unable to work. Some people get old and are dependent on others and the state. That in itself is poverty. So you have to learn and read a lot in order to understand.
My generation and again with your generation, we are faced with an issue of Identity. How are we, as black people, presented in the media, in history, in galleries, in museums? There is always a particular way that has this ingrained racial bias. So one of the debates and challenges was how do we photograph people in a way that– no matter how poor or rich they were– they still had their dignity; because a sense of dignity is a sense of power. The way you construct an essay is to see people in a very large community in their everyday life. Their everyday life may not be exotic, but the work should not be done in a way that celebrates poverty. It is these same people you see in meetings, in churches, in schools. Life is not stereotyped in a particular way.
So we had to construct, and continue to construct, a way of photographing communities critically but at the same time show them as they live every day. I may be attracted to everyday life but sometimes there are certain themes I follow and put together. I am attracted to rituals of Christianity, Muslims and all the other indigenous religions because I myself am not a religious person. However, it is part of my life experience and the experience of most people. If you look carefully at the way I have constructed some of my essays and photographs, I look at the relationship between the leader and the led. As with most religions and traditional practice, there is usually a terrible relationship between a spiritual leader and the led. It is something that I explored. It wasn’t just about people but the power relations too.
Shots011: Looking at your career, what is the one thing you wish you knew when you started?
OB: Oh that’s a difficult question. Uhm, I don’t know how to answer that. There are many things I would have liked to have done but I wasn’t able to because I didn’t go to university and when I started there weren’t any art schools.
When I started, I was also denied a passport to travel and study and learn elsewhere in the world. I think if I had studied more, I might have been a much better artist and much more focused. However, I was self-taught. I would have loved to work with other materials such as oil painting.
I also had two lives, one as an activist and one as an artist. I tried to balance the two and it doesn’t work like that, but I have no regrets about it.
I would’ve also liked to learn more of the indigenous languages, even though I am able to follow and understand them superficially, Isizulu in particular because it’s a spoken where I grew up. I could understand it and follow it thanks to being trade union leader. But at times, I had to turn to the interpreter. I think my biggest regret is not learning and mastering Isizulu. I’ve always had a problem with languages because I was slightly dyslexic, that made it very difficult. Nevertheless, I think that if I had mastered and been able to read the literature, listen to people more and talk to them in their own languages, it would have enriched my work better or my life even better.
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 Omar the person, instead of the artist, a bit more about Omar outside of photography.
What is your favourite word?
Fuck! Laughs… No man let’s just stop this. No, no, no, this sort of enquiry doesn’t gel with me.