Andrew Tshabangu: Exploring quiet humanity

Photo: Sam van Heerden

Most of life happens in the quiet moments. The time spent waiting in long queues in the centre of town; the hours spent decorating home spaces, washing dishes, or fishing in the sun. There are big moments too, which are loud and memorable. But these discreet day-to-day experiences form the bulk of our reality.

Unlike newspapers that often focus on the spectacle of poverty, Andrew Tshabangu’s Footprints is a black and white photography exhibition that explores the subtle lived experiences of people. The exhibition consists of excerpts from Tshabangu’s newly published photographic book by the same name. It covers almost twenty-five years of Tshabangu’s work, shot in various places ranging from Johannesburg to New York.

“He steals moments,” says Thembinkosi Goniwe, the curator of the exhibition. The photographs are footprints; they are instants, moments in time, glimpses into the lives of people moving through their days.

Various themes are explored in the exhibition. ‘City in Transition’ captures urban scenes of people in transit, moving to and from the city centre, photographed in dramatic black and white contrasts. “It has to do with a particular time of day, a particular moment,” says Goniwe, “There’s a cool sense of aesthetic, but it is also charged. These people are tired, they are waiting, they are commuting.”

Many of these works are abstract and move away from a pure documentary style. Several scenes are captured from afar, through rear-view mirrors or buildings from above. They are what Goniwe calls ‘constructed narratives’, like paintings.

Contributing to the overarching motif of footprints, the images are organised in specific intervals; the spaces between the photographs contribute to the narrative. “The images are in conversation,” says Goniwe, “[They] talk with each other.”

In contrast to the busy urban life, Tshabangu also explores quiet rural scenes in ‘Emakhaya’. One photograph shows a man washing clothes in a bucket. “For those who study masculinity, when men are washing clothes we are prompted to ask what this means. This man is enjoying it, he’s not stressing about it,” says Goniwe.

Many of the images in ‘Emakhaya’ are mysterious. Steam and smoke engulf the photographs while women handle pots spewing with flames. They are enigmatic. One would not assume that these scenes are from the middle of Johannesburg.

In ‘Water is Ours’, Tshabangu explores the relationship that black people have with water. Shot by the seaside in Maputo and Mozambique, these photographs capture boys fishing, relaxing, packing, and watching the ocean. In another image, a women stands solitary in the sea. “[It’s] a moment of silence, of beauty,” says Goniwe.

Sprawling across one of the walls of the exhibition is a similar scene taken in New York. A woman stands in the ocean looking out to sea, draped in what looks like traditional clothing. This explores the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and the Middle Passage. “America would not have become what it is without slavery,” says Goniwe.

‘Bridges’ looks at spirituality. “It explores moments of transcendency, of taking flight,” explains Goniwe. The experience of trance is encapsulated using blurs and shadow, while moments of prayer are captured in dark, misty light. “It has a mystical sense about it,” Goniwe explains, “Why would these people walk to this park to pray at this time of day?”

Tshabangu also investigates the experiences of migrant labourers using the outsides and insides of hostels. This section is called ‘Interiors/Exteriors’. In one photograph, a heart is painted onto a concrete wall in an otherwise cold room. Tshabangu says that this could reflect the longing that plague migrant workers; longing for home, family, or comfort.

“One must accept being a student of life,” says Tshabangu, “You need to learn from people.” He cautions against arrogance, and sees his works as often being a collaboration between him and his subjects. He does not walk into their homes, choose what to photograph, and then leave. He often lets people show him what they think is important or worthy of being photographed.

Tshabangu’s work is elusive and enigmatic. Where are these people going? And where have they come from?  “[The photos] depict the bearable lightness of these black people as they live in the world,” says Goniwe, “How do you look at the best part of people?”. Dramatic in its black and white contrasts, but subtle in its choice of subject matter, Footprints is a journey through the quiet humanity of everyday people.

By Sam van Heerden

Footprints can be viewed at the Alumni Gallery, Albany Museum every day from 9am to 5pm.