Andrew Tshabangu ‘Footprints’ at the Standard Bank Art Gallery is a hand-picked collection of photographs that span the past 20 years of Tshabangu’s career. Curated by Thembinkosi Goniwe, the narrative is uncomplicated and uncluttered, thus allowing the images breathing space for engagement. The display is precise with careful attention to detail, appearing neat, slick and efficient; a characteristic mirrored in Tshabangu’s photography.
With an ambience of open space and grey tones, this exhibition presents an overall sense of a subdued, controlled, impartial and steady outlook; neither positive nor negative by definition. Tshabangu ‘Footprints’ emerge as arrested perspectives that are time-bound but not stuck, limited or definite. They read as moments in history, archived for the benefit of the time that we are in.
Footprints are impressions left from where a person has walked. In this exhibition footprints are not indentations but tracks of social, environmental and political issues. The show is divided into themes like Emakhaya, Interiors, Hostel Exteriors, Bridges, City in Transit and Our Waters; expressed as visual representations of the places the photographer has visited. Tshabangu’s photographs tracks the traces left by the instabilities of apartheid, democracy, multiculturalism, racial differences and divides. Tshabangu does not rely on the obvious, unsettling and unresolved aesthetics of blacks as victims. Presented here are thought-provoking realisms that are both part of their time and currently still being negotiated.
Hostel exteriors, for instance, show typical parallel block by block architecture with a single main door and windows for each room. The hostels were a system of apartheid growing alongside South Africa’s mining industries. As informal structures, hostels habitually resurface today as marks of displacement, disorder and violence. The complementary series Interiors, can be understood in terms of Mamphele Ramphele’s A Bed Called Home, where the room is the bed, a space no longer reserved for intimacy, relaxation and rest but for added issues of social, political and economical activities. In Tshabangu’s photographs, the beds are spread neatly, with pillows, folded blankets, small tables, lockers and clothes dangling on hangers.
The objects in these images are quiet and still, resembling a museum displaying objects of history. However, there are embodied impression, traces of human presences, in the decades of grime and graffiti, picture frames and cellphones charging.
There are other kinds of traces that Tshabangu captures. In the series around the Nazareth Baptist Church, or Shembe, under the theme Bridges, Tshabangu records performative acts of ritual activity in routine work, religious, spiritual and ceremonial practices. Such ritualistic performances are ephemeral, like footprints. When captured and stored they become a spectacle to be engaged and analysed for the benefit of the viewer. The role of these images, caught between consumption and conservation becomes an important, unresolved issue.
The sense of proximity in some of the images in this exhibition is very close, as if providing the viewer with the same intimate experience as the photographer. This intimacy is in the physical presence and representation of Tshabangu’s chosen figures or objects rather than identified facial expressions and facets. We do not know who these figures are and the photos don’t allow us to. Identity is determined by place and work, where there is repetition of striding and pathways of direction and destination. Tshabangu’s footprints are depictions that enhance the importance of origin and growth in lived experiences and visual expressions.
The perfected order and steady curatorial path of exhibiting has a portending omen of retrospect that is not only a reflection, as mirrored by the glass frames and polished floors of the gallery, but importance of surface and marks produced in and by these photographs. A moment of tracing and looking back is created and selected by bringing focus to impermanent acts and settings that are neither perfect nor imperfect. Therefore, time is a consideration of noticing change; an overabundance on issues on around humans and the situations they exist. Tshabangu ‘Footprints’ do not have colour but embrace gradient and gradual grey tones of personal and shared historical moments. They are anticipated impressions of what is yet to come.