World-renowned artist, photographer and social activist, Omar Badsha is the 2015 winner of the ACT Lifetime Achievement Award for Visual Arts, sponsored by Nedbank.
In the run up to Seedtime, a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Iziko South African National Gallery, Omar Badsha was quoted as saying that, ‘the act of drawing or writing or playing music is a form of defiance. You’re saying I am human. I am creative. I am worth who I am and, no matter what you do to me, I can create.’
Badsha has remained constantly committed to both art and politics, with both pursuits often so closely intertwined as to be inseparable. Born in Durban in 1945, he was involved in the anti-apartheid movement from high school onwards, serving as first general secretary for the Chemical Workers Industrial Union and cofounding the Education Reform Association, and later the Institute of Industrial Education. Such activities brought Badsha to the attention of the authorities and he was subjected to ongoing harassment and denied a passport right up until the 1990s.
Largely self-taught, although both inspired and mentored by his father Ebrahim Badsha, Omar Badsha worked full time as an artist during the 1960s, a proponent of ‘resistance art’ alongside the likes of Dumile Feni and Cecil Skotnes. He won several awards for his drawings, paintings and prints, among them the Sir Basil Schönland Award, Arts South Africa Today 1965; The Sir Ernest Oppenheimer Memorial Award, Arts South Africa Today 1969; The Natal Society Of Arts – Annual award 1968; and Images Of Africa First Prize at the African Arts Festival in Denmark, 1993. Badsha has featured in numerous exhibitions, including, in 1970, his first solo exhibition at the Artists Gallery in Cape Town.
However, Badsha is arguably best known for his work in documentary photography, being one of the key figures to have captured life under apartheid, fusing art, politics and a keen eye for humanity.
Badsha took up photography in 1976. His first book of photographic essays (with Fatima Meer), was entitled Letter to Farzanah, published in 1978 by the Institute of Black Research. This brought together some 67 images of South African children with selected newspaper articles highlighting the brutality of the regime, and was quickly banned by the apartheid government.
In 1982, Badsha, along with a number of other photographers and activists, cofounded an independent photo agency, Afrapix, writing that ‘photographers should become activists, using their skills to bring about change within the country…’
Also in 1982, Badsha was appointed head of the photography unit of the Second Carnegie Commission on Poverty and Development, for which he recruited some 20 photographers to document conditions across the country. This resulted in South Africa: The Cordoned Heart (with economist Francis Wilson) which took form as both a book and an exhibition that went on to tour the United States over the next decade. At the time, one reviewer noted that while ‘most of the 136 photographs in this book are not particularly dramatic… it is hard to imagine any more striking portrayals of the gruelling, embittering, enraging impact of apartheid than what is written on the faces of these people…’ South Africa: Beyond the Barricades, with Alex Harris, Gideon Mendel and Paul Weinberg, followed in 1989.
“While it is humbling to be recognised by one’s colleagues, I feel that I would like to disrupt the notion of awards”
In 1985, Badsha published Imijondolo: A photographic essay on forced removals in South Africa. Referring to the Zulu word for ‘shack’, Imijondolo documented the informal settlements of Inanda, 30km out of Durban, investigating ‘Inanda’s catastrophic drought of 1979 that caused deadly outbreaks of typhoid and cholera… residents of Inanda at work and at play, in religious worship and in mourning.’ Badsha’s other publications include Imperial Ghetto, examining Durban’s Grey street area in 2001, among others.
South Africa is not the only country to have been brought under the scrutiny of Badsha’s lens. Having won the Images of Africa First Prize Denmark in 1993, in 1995 he received a grant from the Danish Government to photograph life in Denmark. A year later, Badsha started work documenting life in Gujarat, the ancestral village of his grandparents, at the invitation of the Indian government.
With decades of artistic production to his credit, Badsha continues to turn his critical eye on aspects of life in South Africa – even the notion of awards. Regarding his ACT Lifetime Achievement Award, which was awarded at the ACT Awards, hosted by Sun International, he notes that ‘while it is humbling to be recognised by one’s colleagues, I feel that I would like to disrupt the notion of awards.’
‘But I will leave that for another life,’ he says.