DECO ICON: ANDREW TSHABANGU
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.