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Thabiso Sekgala: Bôna | Exploring how social borders determine visibility

© Thabiso Sekgala Tiger, 2012; Second Transition

Thabiso Sekgala was born in Soweto, the oldest township in South Africa, and grew up in KwaNdebele, a semi-independent Bantustan established by the apartheid government. Having been born in apartheid South Africa and raised in a semi-independent state controlled by the apartheid government Thabiso work interrogates memory, place and self imagining within previously segregated spaces.

Sekgala died in Johannesburg in 2014. Bôna is the first solo exhibition of Sekgala’s work at Goodman Gallery since then, following consultation with the late photographer’s close friends and family.

© Thabiso Sekgala; Jane Nkuna, Loding, former Kwandebele, 2009; Homeland

The exhibition’s title, Bôna, is a Sesotho word with a double meaning. As a verb, Bôna means to “see”. When used as a pronoun, the word translates to “them”. Sekgala’s photographs evoke this title through the responses they elicit from the subjects in the work and in turn us, the viewers. “I consider how people develop place-related identities out of a notorious past and the complex ways in which people develop nostalgia for histories that could be considered illegitimate,” said Sekgala in an artist’s statement. Drawing on this understanding, Sekgala used portraiture and landscape photography to challenge these mindsets by creating an archive of shifting realities where people re-imagined themselves within a contested space.

An example of this can be found in Sekgala’s Homelands series (2009-2011). Over the course of three years, Sekgala travelled between the areas formerly known as KwaNdebele and Bophuthatswana taking pictures of young people. The subsequent portraits, set against rural landscapes, present a contrast between the past and the future, as well as the loaded meaning of home.

© Thabiso Sekgala; Time passing, Yizo Yizo Squatter camp, Rustenburg , 2012; Second Transition

Second Transition, a series taken in 2012, continues this narrative. Returning to Bophuthatswana, today called North West province, Sekgala poignantly documented the prevailing economic exclusion in a small town called Marikana two decades after the end of apartheid. Taken in the same year as the Marikana massacre, the photographs in this body of work tells this story through the setting of the mines and individuals whose lives come at the cost of this profiting from the land.

Sekgala once again explored the concept of home in his 2013 series, titled Running. In these works, taken in Bulawayo and Amman, Sekgala documented two cities borne out of settlements. The first, Bulawayo, was founded by a group of people led by Zulu Chief Mzilikazi in the early 19th century, who settled in the area that came to be known as Matebeleland. Two centuries later, this area has seen a reversal of history, as millions of Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa. Amman is built around an old Palestinian refugee camp. These photographs were taken during a period when America was still threatening to attack Syria. In the series, Sekgala explores the condition that defines a home, from personal, political to economic circumstances.

© Thabiso Sekgala; Sitting on koppie during the last days of the strike, Marikana; Second Transition

© Thabiso Sekgala; Loding, former Kwandebele, 2010; Homeland

‘In photography, I am inspired by looking at human experience whether lived or imagined,’ Sekgala once expressed. ‘Images capture our history and who we are, our presence and absence. Growing up in both rural and urban South Africa influences my work. The dualities of both these environments inform the stories I am telling through my photographs, by engaging issues around land, peoples’ movement, identity and the notion of home.’

The exhibition is at Goodman Gallery Johannesburg, from 25 January to 14 March 2020


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