Welcome to Paradise Post-apartheid South Africa in Pictures

We People Who Are Darker Than Blue. Istanbul, 2013. © Thabiso Sekgala
We People Who Are Darker Than Blue. Istanbul, 2013. | © Thabiso Sekgala

Thabiso Sekgala is one of the few younger photographers whose work is featured in The Rise and Fall of Apartheid. Born in 1981, he completed the Market Photo workshop’s programme and recently lived in Berlin, Germany on a residency programme. He told us about the perception of African photography in Europe and why his latest show is titled Paradise.

This year, South Africa is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the end of apartheid. How are the celebrations going?

I don’t really know. There is not much going on in public – people are just moving on with their lives. Under normal circumstances, I think, people don’t celebrate it. It’s more of a way of promoting democracy and the new South Africa in the media, and companies use it as a marketing tool.

Until the end of June, the exhibition The Rise and Fall of Apartheid is on show at Museum Africa. Some of your work is included in the exhibition. How does it feel to have your images exhibited alongside renowned photographers such as Peter Magubane, Santu Mofokeng and David Goldblatt?

I feel humbled and honoured that people recognise my work.

Which of the seasoned photographers from the exhibition have influenced your work?

There are definitely a few. I’d like to think that so many of the older photographers from the apartheid era were influential to my work today. There is Peter Magubane, but also David Goldblatt and Omar Badsha who photographed life in the townships. Especially the photographers form the Afrapix Collective, for example Cedric Nunn, Santu Mofokeng and others had a great impact on my images. I think all the images in this exhibition are equally important, because of their historical significance. 

What does the end of apartheid signify after 20 years? How relevant is it still today?

Most definitely it’s relevant; one cannot say that it’s not relevant. The end of apartheid is relevant and the democracy is relevant. Things happen today because we had this transition to democracy. I cannot speak on behalf of other people, but on behalf of myself. And for me it is incredibly important, because we now all have opportunities and can do what we do. But of course, such a transition process is not easy. Change takes time...

Many young photographers from South Africa and the African continent have emerged over the past years. Do you feel there are certain expectations in Germany of your artistic work?

Yeah, it’s funny because if you look at how photography from Africa is promoted in Europe, you easily see that it’s always about certain topics: poverty, crime and other negative stuff. This does say something about how our photography is perceived and consumed. People want to see a certain picture of Africa. But for the type of photographs I take, this is not all that important, because my images are really subtle. I’m always running away from all that negative stuff. I think there’s a lot of better stuff to photograph than this negative stuff – better than poverty and violence, you know. But I think now things are changing a bit because there are alternative ways of portraying the continent in the arts. The new generation artists have a positive approach and focus on topics that empower them. 

How do people deal with your more recent images which weren’t taken in South Africa, but for example in Berlin and Istanbul? Do European audiences miss the exotic aspect?

It seems to me that people from Europe are interested in seeing photographs from somewhere else. If you show them images of themselves and their environment, they seem less interested because they feel like they know it. They want to see African subject matter. If it is not African, although the photographer is African, they are confused or disappointed. But when I take pictures, I feel like I can really laugh about this and instead focus on what I’m thinking of and what matters at that moment.

You recently lived in Berlin-Kreuzberg for a year-long residency at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien. How was your experience in Berlin?

The residency really opened a lot of doors for me because I met very different people from many different places. This had an effect on my thinking and my work. Before, everything revolved around a South African context; but once you start to move out, you start to see things from a different perspective. So I think, being there for a year also made me revisit my work and see things that I would not have been able to see before. And I think Berlin has a lot of inspiring things to offer in terms of art, people and places… artists from different countries. You kind of get inspired by the work of others.

How is your work received by international galleries, curators and collections?

2013 was a very good year in terms of international residencies and travelling. I think I had great support from people who I met and the institutions that I worked with. Apart from the residency in Berlin, I was also invited by Durant Al Funun to Amman, Jordan for two months and I showed work there as well. That was also a very fruitful experience in 2013.

Your latest exhibition, entitled „Paradise“, did not only include photos from Berlin. Can you tell us a bit about the work?

Yes, the photos are form Istanbul and Berlin.  

Why did you choose to put these two cities into a dialogue?

For the obvious reasons. When I was in Berlin, I saw so many people from the Turkish community who had migrated to Germany after the war and later in the 1970s. For me it was interesting to investigate the relationships between these two cities, but also the two cultures in Berlin’s urban space: especially in Kreuzberg, so many businesses and tea shops are owned by Turkish people. Also I had a chance to go to Istanbul and so it made sense to combine the two cities. When I first came to Berlin, I was drawn to these tea shops where only Turkish men spend time. Most Germans I met had never been to these shops, especially women. So I started to ask women to join me there and to have their portrait taken. The hesitation to go there is purely cultural; it is not enforced by any law. I was interested in these invisible borders.

You usually choose short titles for your series of works. There is “Homeland” and “Second Transition”. Why did you choose the word “Paradise” for your latest exhibition?

Whenever I came to Germany, people would say to me: “Congratulations, you have made it to Berlin!”. But if someone comes to South Africa, we don’t say “congratulations”, we rather say “Welcome to South Africa”. That’s why I called the project Paradise. It speaks about the idea that if you’re African, when you arrive at any European airport, you get reminded that you’re from Africa. They check your visa meticulously to see if everything is correct. There was one time when I arrived in France coming from Lagos. By the time they opened the doors of the plane they were standing right there, checking the visas. With Paradise, I’m interested in spatial politics. On the one hand, people from Africa are looking to Europe; they want to live or work there. On the other hand, Europeans want to go somewhere warm when it’s cold, but they don’t question why it is hard for Africans to enter Europe, while Europeans can go anywhere they want without any problems of getting a visa – to some sort of paradise. It’s this irony that led me to the title.

Thabiso Sekgala’s work is on show at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town from 3 – 31 May 2014. The exhibition is called Running and includes three bodies of work from Amman as well as Berlin. The Rise and Fall of Apartheid runs until 29 June 2014 at Museum Africa in Newtown, Johannesburg.