Tender, Curious, and Full of Hope
Thabiso Sekgala Showed a South Africa Beyond the Clichés

With Thabiso Sekgala the South African photography scene lost one of its most promising talents. His compassionate pictures document the hardships of life in the homelands, as well as the pride and optimism of their residents. Recently a selection of Sekgala’s photographic works was acquired for the Deutsche Bank Collection. The artist is currently represented at the Bamako Encounters, Biennale of African Photography. Sean O’Toole remembers an artist who despite his early death left behind an impressive oeuvre.
He came to photography relatively late. It was a chance encounter with a photographer in Johannesburg in the mid-2000s that introduced Thabiso Sekgala, then still a waiter at a fast-food outlet, to the possibilities of the camera. In 2007, aged 25, he enrolled at the Market Photo Workshop, a school cofounded by photographer David Goldblatt in 1989. Sekgala graduated a year later, and in 2009 he began work on his career-defining Homeland essay, about the landscapes of his youth.

While born in Soweto, south of Johannesburg, Sekgala was raised by his grandmother in a “homeland” settlement near Hammanskraal, north of Pretoria. The area formed part of KwaNdebele, a semi-autonomous black state allocated for black settlement only. Although incorporated back into South Africa after the first democratic elections in 1994, KwaNdebele and many similar “homeland” territories remain chronically underdeveloped. When he began work on his Homeland essay Sekgala’s focus was very much on the domestic. He photographed the region’s pervasive brick and tin-roof homes, investing his three-quarter studies of these inanimate things with the same intensity as his burgeoning portrait studies. One memorable early portrait is worth noting. It shows Johanna Mthombeni inside her family home. She wears a yellow blouse and stands beneath an ornate yellow light shade.
Sekgala would further develop the latent ideas in this picture when, in 2010, he was awarded the Tierney Fellowship, a prestigious early-career award that offers recipients a cash grant and the opportunity of a yearlong mentorship with an established professional. Sekgala worked with Magnum photographer Mikhael Subotzky, who despite his many career successes was the same age as his protégé. “We were friends who came from different worlds, yet we had so much in common,” Subotzky told me shortly after Sekgala’s suicide in October 2014. Subotzky, who in May won the 2015 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, worked closely with Sekgala on selecting the images for his debut solo exhibition.

Umbrellas, a correlative to the yellow light shade in Mthombeni’s portrait, became a constant in his photos. In an untitled 2010 photo held in the Deutsche Bank Collection, a large red umbrella provides literal protection to two youths walking in the rain. In an untitled work from 2011, also in the collection, the umbrella functions as a sunshade. Two things are notable in these photographs: the habitat of Sekgala’s work, the street, a kind of communal polity, and his metonymic use of found props (notably umbrellas) to speak, as he put it in 2014, of “the relationship between a subject’s background and their environment”.

First exhibited at the Market Photo Workshop in 2011, Homeland quickly garnered Sekgala widespread attention. Soon, excerpts from his autobiographical debut started to appear on major international exhibitions, notably curator Okwui Enwezor’s Rise & Fall of Apartheid, which opened in New York and later travelled to Paris, Munich and Johannesburg, and PHOTOQUAI 2013, a “world image biennial” hosted by Musée du quai Branly in Paris. Despite his rapid rise to prominence, Sekgala however continued to pursue training opportunities rather than settle for a career as an editorial photographer, which he could easily have opted for.

Sekgala is one of the star graduates of a pan-African photography masterclass conceived and supervised by curator Simon Njami, who group show Xenopolis is currently on view at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. The msterclass is funded by the Goethe-Institut. Held annually in a different African city, I met Sekgala at the 2013 masterclass in Lagos. Despite his soft-spoken manner, Sekgala confidently discussed his new work with an audience that included Njami, Tate Modern director Chris Dercon and veteran Nigerian photographer Akinbode Akinbiyi. Where Sekgala’s earlier work was introspective, offering the viewer an unflinching view of the perplexities of South African history and its irresolution – “Homeland speaks about the idea of looking at where I come from personally, mixed with where we come from politically as a country,” he encapsulated the work – his more recent colour work presented unhurried and inquisitive statements on street life in Amman, Berlin and Bulawayo.

Berlin-based Akinbiyi witnessed Sekgala’s growth first-hand. The two met in 2011. “Thabiso was serious about his photography, about having a clear vision of what he wanted to convey, get across,” said Akinbiyi, who began his photographic career in 1974 and continues to produce black-and-white street scenes using a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera. In October 2012, the two went on a long walk through central Johannesburg that ended at the younger photographer’s apartment. “From his living room window I overlooked well-kept lawns and the privilege of economic security,” recalls Akinbiyi, highlighting those things still out-of-reach of Sekgala. His suicide was partly attributed to his on-going economic insecurity, although his grandmother’s death a month earlier was also a contributing factor.

In 2013 Sekgala participated in a residency funded by KfW Stiftung at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. At the end of his stay he mounted an exhibition under the title Paradise. Exploring issues of home, migrant identity, displacement alongside the gentler pleasures of urban living, the exhibition included portraits of white Berlin women posed in Turkish male-only teahouses. But mostly, it showed things seen on the street, including instances of people sheltering beneath umbrellas. Sekgala’s first European solo exhibition however failed to galvanise wider interest, particularly amongst commercial dealers. This galvanised rather than diminished his resolve.

“People want to see a certain picture of Africa,” explained Sekgala following his return to South Africa. “I think there’s a lot of better stuff to photograph than this negative stuff – better than poverty and violence.”

Sekgala brought this attitude to bear on a difficult subject: mining in South Africa. In 2012, he began travelling to the former “homeland” territories again for a new project. Second Transition describes the labour strife that has gripped the platinum mining region north of Johannesburg. In August 2012, the massacre of Marikana occurred here. Close to the telegraph lines pictured on the Second Transition works from the Deutsche Bank Collection, 34 striking mine workers were shot. It was the most deadly police deployment in the post-apartheid era. Working less like a photojournalist and more like a drifting street photographer, Sekgala observed things that interested him. Two women seated on a rise beneath umbrellas. A protesting miner in uniform balancing his safety helmet on a stick, like an umbrella.

But these are simply visually correspondences (of which there are many in his body of work as a photographer, including fences, roadsides, tables; Sekgala is a poet of the non-motorised world). For Sekgala, though, there was a deeper connection between his two projects. “Homeland speaks of political and personal importance of a place,” he told curator Brendan Wattenberg. “Second Transition looks at the economic value of the land in mining areas.” Sekgala’s sympathies in relation to his subject are clearly visible: Sekgala is firmly on the side of workers. In this sense, his work is less about the dialectic of struggle than it is about the affirming class solidarity. What distinguishes him from propagandists of labour is his eye. Similar to Omar Badsha, an important anti-apartheid photographer who came to photography through his activities as a trade unionist, Sekgala retrieves dignity and quiet from a situation very often treated merely as a cite of spectacle by photojournalists.

Despite coming to photography late and only producing a relatively small body of work, Sekgala will be remembered for his effortless maturity as a photographer concerned with themes of youth and belonging. “Thabiso was really talented and was prepared to do the nitty-gritty hard work,” Akinbiyi told me shortly after his death. “Already he had gained his personal eye, using the square format and colour film to express his acute sensitivity. Still young in years he strove to understand what he trained his camera lens on, to see beyond the surface forms.”  A selection of Sekgala’s works is currently on view at the 10th Bamako Encounters. The biennale, established in 1994, is the most important forum for African photo and video art.

For those that knew and worked with him, like Kenyan photographer Mimi Cherono Ng’ok, Sekgala represented more than simply talent unrealised. Sekgala, says Ng’ok, allied himself to a “new generation artists” with a “positive approach”. Of their many conversation, she points to one statement as defining of the man as much as the artist: “We are each mapping – emotionally, and physically – trying to find our place in this world, creating photographs that stand as monuments to place, movement and new discoveries. We are a generation of searching.”  

Thabiso Sekgala, born 1981, died 16 October 2014. Although unmarried, he is survived by two children, a son and daughter.

Rencontres de Bamako
Bamako, Mali
October 1. – December 31.2015