Above image: Second Transition, Tiger, 2012; Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery 

Trained at David Goldblatt’s prestigious Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg, the late Thabiso Sekgala belongs to a lineage of black South African photographers (many of whom were also Market Photo alumni) whose work addresses representation and identity following Apartheid. A new exhibition at Hayward brings together around fifty works that interweave the country’s turbulent socio-political history with Sekgala’s own for his first solo UK show.

At the heart of this exhibition is the artist’s career-defining series Homeland (2009-2011), shot in the bantustan territories of Bophuthatswana and KwaNdebele that were established in 1958 by the Apartheid government in order to house black South Africans. The re-location was part of an effort to reserve urban areas exclusively for whites, forcing non-whites into rural areas where they often faced a daily commute of several hours. Although these bantustan territories were abandoned following the end of Apartheid, their presence remains physically and psychologically embedded within the South African landscape and its people. According to Sekgala, many black South Africans would refer to their ‘rural origins’ even if they were born and raised in urban areas.

Homeland was first shown in 2011, as part of Sekgala’s debut exhibition at the Market Photo Workshop, after he became only the third person to win the school’s prestigious Tierney Fellowship. As a series it offers insight to the question that has dominated Sekgala’s lens ever since: home, and more specifically, the personal, political and economic conditions that govern our relationship to it.

Speaking in 2013, Sekgala said, “I am inspired by looking at human experience whether lived or imagined. Images capture our history, who we are, our presence and absence. My work is influenced by growing up in both rural and urban South Africa. The dualities of these both environments inform the stories I am telling through my photographs, by engaging issues around land, peoples’ movement, identity and the notion of home.

“My focus is on landscape and portraiture, looking on how young people relate to their landscape and also finding their own identities. My work is the culmination of the exploration of memory, place and interrelated self-imagining.”

Homeland, Road divide Guateng and Northwest province, Hamaskraal, former Bophuthatswana, 2011; Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery

Like Goldblatt before him, Sekgala is drawn to hidden violence and invisible histories, favouring everyday, indirect and nuanced images over actual depictions of violence. One photograph from Homeland entitled Landmark, shot in what was formerly KwaNdebele before it was re-integrated with South Africa in 1994, shows the post that once marked the border of the former homeland. Another shows a dilapidated bus station, originally part of the thriving transport system at the heart of the government’s forced mobility programme. Elsewhere, history rises to the surface in a photograph of children walking the long road to school dressed in British-style uniforms strongly evocative of the country’s colonial past.

In making these complex social histories palpable, Sekgala not only draws attention to the lasting physical vestiges of Apartheid but forces the viewer to actively engage in each photograph to decipher the historical narratives hidden beneath the surface.

‘Here is Elsewhere’ runs at the Hayward Gallery from 28 August – 6 October 2019.