Because I always feel like running, not away, because there is no such place
Because, if there was I would have found it by now
Because it’s easier to run, easier than staying and finding out
you’re the only one who didn’t run.
Because running will be the way your life and mine will be described,
As “in the long run” or as in having given someone a “run for his money”
Or as in “running out of time”
Because running makes me look like everyone else;
though I hope there will never be cause for that
Because I will be running in the other direction, not running for cover
Because if I knew where cover was, I would stay there and never have to run for it
Not running for my life, because I have to be running for something
of more value to be running and not in fear.
Because the thing I fear cannot be escaped, eluded, avoided, hidden from,
protected from, gotten away from,
Not without showing the fear as I see it now
Because closer, clearer, no sir, nearer
Because of you and because of that nice that you quietly, quickly be causing
And because you´re going to see me run soon and because you´re going to know
why I´m running then,
You will know then, because I´m not going to tell you now.
– Running, Gil Scott-Heron
In his first solo show with the Goodman Gallery, Thabiso Sekgala presents Running, a photographic exhibition bringing together three series: Running Amman, Running Bulawayo and Paradise. Although shot in highly disparate places – the cities of Amman, Bulawayo and Berlin – all three series are viewed by Sekgala as part of a similar trajectory of movement, displacement, transition; each photograph displaying a veneer of calm, that may or may not be on the verge of catastrophe. Considering both the notion of running towards and away from, Sekgala confronts perceptions surrounding place, influenced by sentiments such as aspiration and assumption, and ultimately destabilises these. Produced while Sekgala was on various international residencies, this is the first time these works are being exhibited in South Africa.
Running Amman was photographed in a city built around an old Palestinian refugee camp, which for Sekgala, “defines the idea of running… I was interested in the calmness, and the stillness of the place. I photographed these images during the period when America was still threatening to attack Syria, in my mind I was thinking if that could happen while I was in Jordan ‘will I have a place to run to’… In my work I am fascinated by conditions that define people’s home, that could be personal or political or economic.” Within the series Sekgala focusses on parked cars, influenced by Walid Raad’s series on car bombings during the Lebanese Civil war. These, as well as images of quiet streets, void landscapes and lone pedestrians may suggest the calm before a storm, or nothing at all.
Running Bulawayo, a bit closer to home, takes into account a shared history between Zimbabwe and South Africa, and the strange relationship the two countries currently share. Bulawayo was founded by the people led by Zulu Chief Mzilikazi, who left Zululand in the early 19th Century and settled in what came to be known as Matebeleland. Two centuries later, there is an inversion of migration, with millions of Zimbabweans fleeing to South Africa. “The town has become what I would call a ghost town,” explains Sekgala, “because most Zimbabweans live between Bulawayo and Johannesburg. There are over 4 million Zimbabweans living in South Africa.” In a series of images that depict dusty streets, seemingly abandoned mannequins, solemn backyards and dreary shopping centre interiors, Sekgala intimates a forgotten place.
In Paradise, Sekgala confronts the notion of the the West as a place that many want to run to – a perceived paradise. “Here,” Simon Njami writes in his essay ‘Heaven can Wait’, “the light is gray and pale. It gives the feeling of a dying world facing its twilight. And even though there is one scene, in a park, in which we see two children running and smiling, one wearing a T-shirt where the word ‘love’ is apparent, and in the background, most of the images convey a certain feeling of sadness and despair. An homage to a lost young girl; small displays of oranges and plastic watering cans; public transportation showing the solitude and harshness of our modern times; old and lonely people… empty bars, terraces… everything seems to be photographed in order to reveal a contemporary misery. We are, as some billboards and inscriptions reveal, in Germany, the richest European country. And paradise is always associated with wealth, abundance, and eternal joy. What is depicted in these images through the South African photographer’s gaze, however, is a portrait that fully contradicts these common preconceptions.”
Njami goes on to explain that “being an African certainly plays a critical role in Sekgala’s perception, which he charges with irony. Photography being a way of writing stories, and a language in itself, we are aware of the fact that there is a hidden message behind any image. Sekgala’s take on the debate about developed and underdeveloped countries becomes clear when we realise that he is playing on the reversed gaze repertoire. He openly admits that, coming from Africa, there is nothing that he can expect from Europe but magnificence, beauty, and harmony. One would expect a poor African discovering Western magnificence to be overwhelmed by all those things that he is supposed to be missing back home. But here we are, confronted with a reality that has nothing to do with our expectations.” In this interpretation of Sekgala’s modus operandi, Njami encapsulates the photographer’s ability to morph perception, making us question what we run away from, and what we run towards.
Thabiso Sekgala (b. 1981 in Johannesburg, South Africa) was a photographer whose work explores themes of abandonment, memory, spatial politics and concept of home. ‘In photography I am inspired by looking at human experience whether lived or imagined,’ Sekgala once expressed. ‘Images capture our history and who we are, our presence and absence. Growing up in both rural and urban South Africa influences my work. 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.’
Sekgala held solo exhibitions in South Africa and Europe and has exhibited in group shows internationally, including Les Rencontres D’Arles, LagosPhoto Festival and Bamako Biennale. In 2013 he had residencies in both the Kunsterhaus Bethanien, Berlin, and at HIWAR/Durant Al Funun, Jordan.
He studied at Johannesburg’s Market Photo Workshop in 2007 to 2008 and was awarded the Tierney Fellowship in 2010.
Sekgala died in Johannesburg in 2014.