In a short but poignant career, the South African photographer Thabiso Sekgala has impacted on the lives of many, shedding light on the resounding geopolitical effects of apartheid. In his first solo show in the UK, currently exhibiting at London’s Hayward Gallery until 6 October, the artist’s career-defining series Homeland takes centre stage in the wider show, Here is Elsewhere.
From 2009-2011, just a few years prior to the young photographer’s untimely death, Thabiso captured the former homelands of Bophuthatswana and KwaNdebele; two of the many territories established by the apartheid government to house black South Africans forced to leave urban areas in order to maintain racial segregation.
Thabiso had grown up in KwaNdebele and through Homeland he effortlessly captured his personal experiences of place and belonging against the backdrop of South Africa’s contentious political climate. Photographing the “born-free generation” – those who grew up after the country’s first democratic elections in 1994 – Thabiso provides the viewer with a nuanced insight into the lasting effects of apartheid, and the reverberating footprints left on South Africa’s communities.
Curator Tarini Malik first came across Thabiso’s work as part of Okwui Enwezor’s and Rory Bester’s prolific exhibition The Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and The Bureaucracy of Everyday Life. “These images made such an impact on me,” she tells It’s Nice That. “I began to research Thabiso’s practice and trajectory of his career both within Africa and internationally” she continues, and found that there had never been an overall survey of his work, up until now. “He had never shown in an institution in London and it was important for us at the Hayward Gallery to give his artwork the platform it deserves.”
With Homeland at the heart of the exhibition, Tarini curates his less well known series around this magnum opus. Highlighting Thabiso’s central themes of shifting identities shaped by history, the relationship to land, along with the nuanced sociopolitical conditions inherent to it; the show not only explores the South African landscape of the time, but also Jordan’s, Zimbabwe’s and Germany’s.
On his international investigations, the curator continues: “It was crucial to show Thabiso’s gaze as migrationary and unstatic, and the threads that weave across the different photographs from disparate locations and temporalities.” Reflected in the hanging of the exhibition, Tarini thoughtfully places the work in a way so to not feel overtly rigid nor museological. Though constellations of Thabiso’s work are organised by their respective series, the custom backdrops compliment the tone and light of the images, sometimes seen on walls of fabric to highlight a photograph’s softness.
In his still and calming images, “like moments suspended in time,” Thabiso captivates viewers in the camera’s meditative state. “He captured the uncanny with a gentle and perfective hand” adds Tarini. “Often, I find visitors to the gallery relating what they see in his photographs to their own childhoods, or where their parents grew up. Sometimes they are not sure why an image feels familiar to them – whether it’s a lived or an imagined experience that they are drawing from. And in artworks such as these, memory and subjectivity can render time non-chronological despite the specific sociopolitical context in which they were made.”
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