DECO ICON: AN­DREW TSHABANGU

Elle Decoration (South Africa) - - FOOD AND DRINK -

When Tshabangu talks about his life’s work — and his im­pas­sioned ca­reer — he points to the fact that, un­like most pho­tog­ra­phers, for him, pho­tog­ra­phy was never part of the orig­i­nal plan. Dur­ing the 1980s and early 1990s, while many turned their lens to­wards the tur­bu­lence of this tran­si­tionary pe­riod in South Africa, Tshabangu took a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. Away from the dom­i­nant nar­ra­tive, he al­lowed his black and white stills to cap­ture the con­ti­nu­ity and quiet of the lives of peo­ple in spa­ces too of­ten de­picted as be­ing on fire. ‘Yes, there was a lot go­ing on po­lit­i­cally in our coun­try, but peo­ple were also car­ry­ing on. They con­tin­ued go­ing to church. Peo­ple con­tin­ued go­ing to stokvels, they con­tin­ued fall­ing in love,’ he says.

Born in Soweto in 1966, a young Tshabangu had dreams of pur­su­ing a ca­reer in theatre when, af­ter ma­tric­u­lat­ing, a friend gifted him with a copy of Kenyan play­wright Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s work, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), which was banned in the coun­try at that time. Af­ter un­suc­cess­fully au­di­tion­ing for the School of Dra­matic Art at the Univer­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand in Johannesbu­rg, he took a year off to study pho­tog­ra­phy at the Alexan­dra Com­mu­nity Art Cen­tre, with the hope of build­ing up a port­fo­lio and cred­its to re-ap­ply to Wits Univer­sity. The prac­tice stuck and Tshabangu con­tin­ued to shoot, work­ing as a pho­tog­ra­pher and free­lanc­ing briefly for the New Na­tion news­pa­per. Since then, he’s fa­cil­i­tated pho­to­graphic work­shops in Kenya, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Mozam­bique, Réu­nion Is­land and Guyana, as well as tak­ing up sev­eral res­i­den­cies in Réu­nion Is­land, Lon­don, New York and Nairobi.

His work – and, most no­tably, his in­cor­po­ra­tion of light – is of­ten de­scribed as sur­re­al­ist in its ap­proach, but Tshabangu shows lit­tle in­ter­est in ideas about aes­thet­ics: his pref­er­ence for black and white is sim­ply in­spired by the work of his pre­de­ces­sors, he says. It was while study­ing at the Alexan­dra Com­mu­nity Art Cen­tre that he dis­cov­ered books con­tain­ing images he ad­mired by pho­tog­ra­phers such as Peter Magubane from his Drum mag­a­zine era, Ernest Cole, W Eu­gene Smith, Roy DeCar­ava and Henri Cartier-Bres­son — all shot in black and white. ‘You know when you read a book and you wish you’d writ­ten it? I felt sim­i­larly,’ he says. ‘Those pho­tog­ra­phers made an im­pres­sion on me and I wished I’d taken those pic­tures.’

Shortly af­ter find­ing his feet within his pho­to­graphic ca­reer, Tshabangu talks about how an en­counter with South African poet and nov­el­ist Mon­gane Wally Serote – who wrote the pref­ace to An­drew Tshabangu: Foot­prints (Fourth­wall Books), the first ma­jor pub­lished ret­ro­spec­tive of Tshabangu’s work – en­cour­aged him to look at his role as a pho­tog­ra­pher dif­fer­ently. ‘I re­mem­ber telling him that I wanted to change the game,’ says Tshabangu. ‘He sat me down and pointed to peo­ple like him­self and oth­ers in the world who’ve done what they’ve done with the idea of ad­vanc­ing hu­man­ity. That en­cour­aged me to find my own voice and de­velop my own lan­guage.’

Over the past 20 years, Tshabangu’s de­vel­oped his own vis­ual vo­cab­u­lary. In one of his pop­u­lar images, which is on the cover of An­drew Tshabangu: Foot­prints, he cap­tures the re­flec­tion of sev­eral chil­dren in a pud­dle. In the frame of an­other, he de­picts two pairs of shoes on a doorstep, the cur­tain to the en­trance giv­ing only a slight glimpse of who could be living in­side. These are the quiet mo­ments that speak of the sim­plic­ity of hu­man­ity; mo­ments that bear no ev­i­dence of a spe­cific event or larger mo­ment in time.

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