Life & Culture

Thabiso Sekgala’s Alternative Portrait of Life in Contemporary South Africa

A look at Here is Elsewhere, a new exhibition of the late South African photographer’s work at the Hayward Gallery

“The idea of home,” said the late South African photographer, Thabiso Sekgala, “is very complex, and changes depending on who you are and where you come from.” Home, in other words, cannot be reduced to a single definition; and Sekgala’s photography prompts us to reconsider it, not merely as a place in which we live but also as a space where power dynamics – both personal and political – are played out.

It is precisely such dynamics that Sekgala’s photography interrogates in a new exhibition of his work Here is Elsewhere, which opens next week at London’s Hayward Gallery. Born in Johannesburg in 1981, Sekgala died in 2014, but his place in his country’s photographic history has been well and truly cemented; in the past decade, his work has been exhibited across South Africa and Europe, while his photography has been included in prestigious group shows including LagosPhoto Festival and Bamako Biennale. Here is Elsewhere – the first solo exhibition of his photography in the UK, which is supported by The African Arts Trust – brings together projects from various parts of the photographer’s life, reflecting on power, place and belonging as well as South Africa’s spatial politics in the context of Apartheid’s racist legacy.

Central to Here Is Elsewhere are photographs from Sekgala’s influential three-year project entitled Homeland (2009–2011). The series documents life in two former homelands: KwaNdebele and Bophuthatswana. A Homeland – or Bantustan – was an area of land set aside for South Africa’s black population by the Apartheid regime as a way to implement its white supremacist ideologies. By designating black people to allocated territories, the government stripped them of their South African citizenship and, in turn, deprived them of their few remaining political and civil rights. Sekgala’s photographs sensitively capture the material remnants of such exclusionary and dehumanising policies. “Growing up in both rural and urban South Africa influences my work,” Sekgala writes. “The dualities of these environments inform the stories I am telling through my photographs, by engaging issues around land, peoples’ movement, identity and the notion of home.”

Here Is Elsewhere, however, does not just focus on this one pivotal project. Rather, it brings together 50 photographs from six different series taken over five years in South Africa, Jordan and Germany. At the heart of his work lies an interest in the politicisation of space as a powerful instrument of oppression. The exhibition, for example, includes photographs from Second Transition (2012), a series that considers the relationship between Rustenburg, a mining town in northwestern South Africa, and the workers who live in it, as well as Running, Amman (2013) and Paradise (2013). In Running, Amman, Sekgala reflects on a city that is home to Jordan’s second-largest Palestinian refugee camp through images of parked cars, silent streets and lonely pedestrians. Paradise, meanwhile, is an attempt to dismantle the myth of the West as an ideal destination for safety and self-realisation. Through shots of urban cityscapes and their residents, the photographer uncovers the reality behind this damaging but popular narrative.

Here Is Elsewhere will be on display at Hayward Gallery, London, from August 28 until October 6, 2019.