Andrew Tshabangu at Gallery Momo
by Michael Smith
The proliferation of young artists attempting to image the Johannesburg inner city immediately, and possibly unwittingly, put themselves in the company of some of SA art's big hitters. David Goldblatt, Jo Ractliffe and Andrew Tshabangu are amongst the most authoritative of these, and so this show at Gallery Momo provided a great opportunity to see an extensive body of the latter's work from the last three years. While the curation of the show may have been a bit unconsidered, the works themselves sealed for me Tshabangu's importance as a documentarian of aspects of black urban life to which most suburbanites, myself included, remain oblivious.
As 'City in Transition' well demonstrates, Tshabangu's commitment to the inner city is one that seems to transcend fashionable interest. This is underscored as much by his sustained interest in it as his involvement in its daily grind, as indicated by camera angles that place him at the centre of much of the action. Many photographs in this show are taken from inside taxis or on the same street level as the pedestrians he pictures, as in Kliptown Old Taxi Road (2004), and Carrying Brazier (2004) respectively. Like Goldblatt, and possibly unlike Ractliffe, he reinterprets the role of the flaneur for a new millenium context, crucially not a passer-by but someone involved, embroiled in the grimy realities of city life.
The strength of this body of work lies in Tshabangu's determined focus on informal economic practices like the taxi industry, hawking and street catering. In these, he finds images that are decidedly unromantic, both aesthetically and in subject. The gallery blurb states that 'Tshabangu's Johannesburg is not a beautiful or romantic city. It is aggressive... uneasily shouldering its burden of exploding wealth and mass immigration, changing its shape, and never - not for a single moment - at rest'. While not attempting any kind of blanket coverage of urban activity, Tshabangu nevertheless constructs a fairly comprehensive picture of commuter life in Johannesburg, with compositions of immense power that frequently depart from strict documentary. I was quite uncharitable about a series of photos Tshabangu made for the 2006 Sasol Wax Award exhibition in an Art South Africa review last year, and I believe this show vindicates me: while those images of a small candle factory were aesthetically non-committal, these images are gritty and arresting.
At a subconscious level the show is unsettling: the overwhelming majority of images show people moving - in taxis on crowded streets, queuing for taxis in packed ranks, or on foot through pockets of desolation in the city. Inner city life is presented as one of constant movement, with little sense of rootedness. While this is obviously a throwback to apartheid's key stratagem of controlling access to and movement through space, the show considers instead how economic boom, of the sort Johannesburg is currently experiencing, necessitates the constant and destabilising shifting of its inhabitants around and around.
Pedestrian/Taxis Bree Street Taxi Rank and Commissioner Street Taxi Rank (both 2004) find Tshabangu exploring the instances of massed humanity in commuter life. On a small scale the works read like working class Andreas Gursky's, the visual repetition of shapes and forms of bodies signaling not so much a postmodern phenomenological wonderment as a concern for the inhumanity of such a system. And unlike Gursky's works, which reveal an interest in late monopoly capitalism's frenetic energy, Tshabangu's seem to image a kind of paradoxical liminal stasis, moments when people who spend much of their lives on the move are forced to stand and wait for long periods in between working and travelling.
Elsewhere the show trades in other subtle references to conceptual and aesthetic precedents. Henri Cartier-Bresson's famous Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare of 1932 is recalled by Tshabangu's Passage, an image that captures pedestrians and hawkers from inside a claustrophobic passageway. The difference, of course, is that there is nothing romanticising about the latter's view of city life; decisive moment and play with shadows and reflections is replaced by an almost incidental moment of banality. Another work, To Let 378 - 3200 takes its title from the real estate signboard seen while passing in a taxi. A nod to Mofokeng and Goldblatt, who have both used text found within the landscape to speak about the subtext of social and economic disparity, the work nonetheless operates in a slightly different way. In Tshabangu's work the sign doesn't dominate, but rather forms part of the visual noise of the city, possibly even losing out to the multitude of informal business happening in the city. In this image, Tshabangu reveals how the economic reality of Johannesburg subverts old orders and systems of value, not heroically but in an organic manner.
While there is room enough for all manner of artists to engage with Johannesburg and its radical changes, I would argue that Tshabangu deserves his place at the upper end of this bracket as much for his nuanced approach as for his credibility as street level artist.
Opened: June 14
Closes: July 7
52 7th Avenue, Parktown North, Johannesburg
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