Neo Muyanga (NM): I was just thinking about you and your work. I was looking at your pictures of the members of the kwaShembe congregation [Nazareth Baptist Church]. Those faces are so close, and I was thinking that’s difficult to do; how did you manage that?
Andrew Tshabangu (AT): I’m not a member of kwaShembe. But when I photograph, I always do my best to respect the people whom I’m photographing. I knew I was photographing the pilgrimage; it takes three days, from the headquarters of kwaShembe up to the holy mountain. I have friends in Soweto who are members of Shembe, and the ones who took me to Inanda explained how it works. I was in a way somehow part of the congregants, but at the same time I was detached from the whole process. It is important to know that you are not a member, but to do that with respect and dignity.
NM: I love those images because there is a dignity there. There is a sense of a true connection for me, there with the figures. You know there is direct eye contact, but also the body. I love how you’ve composed those pictures.
AT: An advantage I had was my friend in kwaShembe. I was advised by him to wear all-white clothes, so I could blend in on the walk to the mountain and not look like an outsider. That photo is part of the broader series that I have been working on, on spirituality. Not only in South Africa but also in other neighbouring countries — Kenya, Réunion Island, Mozambique. I am showing both indigenous and the so-called Western religions; the impact and interrelation between the two religions.I started working with photography around the time of the so-called black-on-black violence in the townships. I was a freelance photographer working mainly for the New Nation newspaper, which positioned itself as the people’s newspaper. We would go to hot spots, especially Thokoza, Khumalo Street, and then photograph all these violent images. Then we’d go to the newsroom and get accolades and pats on the shoulder. And then go back to the townships. However, there were also these “normal” moments, quieter moments, moments that didn’t make it to the publications, the newspapers or television. I got interested in photographing those moments, starting with the township. This religious series comes from that idea; people were going to church, to shebeens, to parks, they did this and that. That is how I got interested.
NM: That strikes a chord with a lot of the work I’ve been doing lately, which is thinking about chorus. Chorus is the choir and chorus is also cacophony, the idea that we are the many. We have complaints, we
have tragedy, we have pains, and that voice comes across in protest and toyi-toyi. When you speak about those days in Thokoza, I feel them vividly. I am from Mofolo South, and used to go to school in Dube — Nka Thuto Primary — just a few streets away from [playwright Gibson Kente], who used to give us workshops. He kind of jabbed me somehow with this love for music and theatricality, and the many voices articulating. Dube village, for me, is very strongly felt. One area of contention during the violent time we speak about is, of course, the Nancefield hostel.I remember I wasn’t here all of the time because I was living in Italy then, but I know that it was beginning to get hot just as I was about to leave in 1991. I remember the stories from family while I was overseas and about how scary it was to take the train.
AT: Yeah, I was also amazed with my positioning as a photographer; my role was to counter those violent images of the so-called black-on-black violence. Those were the images that the newsroom liked. But coming to your idea of chorus, I am amazed that, with the success you had with BLK Sonshine, here you are. Chorus is not hip for most of us. Why chorus music?
NM: There would have been no BLK Sonshine had I not been a chorus kid in the hood, in township choirs, in school choirs. The choir, for me, was always a way of finding a sense of belonging. When I got to Italy, I did not speak the language and the first thing I did as a defence mechanism was to join the choir. Writing for choirs has always been how I think about placing the voice of the four-part harmony. The colonial thing you’re talking about, the confluence and the contribution of our traditions, of how we make music, but also church music and work songs written in four-part harmony, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass — I learnt that confluence, that almost-musical violence, at school and it just continued.When I needed to find a job, a gig, in Europe, I started busking. Back in South Africa, in 1994, I made friends with Masauko Chipembere, who’s like my brother now. He’s the guy who started BLK Sonshine with me. And BLK Sonshine comes from an acoustic mentality. Our intention was to make simple, direct acoustic music; we used acoustic guitars, no effects, and we used our voices, singing in harmony. The harmony we were making was informed by the four-part harmony that we learnt at school. We were both choirboys at a certain point. Many people thought BLK Sonshine wasn’t hip at the time either, because the rest of the world was doing kwaito then.
AT: I am surprised by your choices, actually. BLK Sonshine and chorus music are not hip music. Back to opera and chorus music, why didn’t you continue?
NM: Well, Masauko and I are still working on projects. We don’t always do them as BLK Sonshine but we think a lot together about music. For example, I’m working now with Msaki, who is of a younger generation but very involved with composition and craft from an acoustic point of view; telling stories about how our people have lived and the hopes and dreams we have for ourselves and our own.You could see her as the young generation of what would have been BLK Sonshine. She is from the Eastern Cape, but she is working nationally now. I think she is one of the most significant voices today in songwriting. I have been co-producing an album for the past three years. It’s starting to come out online, there’s a piece that is being released today [14 August], in fact, because it commemorates the Marikana killings.She’s someone who is much like how we see ourselves, because we tell stories about now, about the joys and the tragedies we are living now, like your work. The photographs, for me, are about telling storiesof everyday life, but then in the middle of living our everyday lives we’ve got these epic confrontations with the system, with violence, with subjugation,with systemic marginalisation, which have continuedfor a long time.The point is to tell the story from our perspective today, and try to find a thread connected to the origins of the story and ways of understanding power today.
AT: One of my current projects’ working title is “Waiting Room”, using the room as a metaphor, like the waiting room at a hospital, waiting for the doctor.When you travel or are in transit, they put you in a sort of room, a lounge. However, this time, the idea of a waiting room is how people have been waiting for this or that, over and over. This project is looking at the state of our people now.
NM: You know what I hear in that? The only people who wait are the poor and the marginalised.
AT: And the people in queues are marginalised people as well.
NM: Those are the people who are constantly waiting in queues, who are expected to be there for hours, and then who are told at the end of the day, “Sorry, we won’t get to you. Come back tomorrow or next week.”
AT: Yeah, you hear the stories in hospitals and informal settlements and so forth. In general, Black people have been in a state of waiting since even before 1994. We make the mistake of thinking that our problems started in 1994, but we have been waiting since long before that.
NM: Bra Hugh [Masekela] used to say, “Vasco da Gama was no friend of mine.”What form is your new project taking? Is it black and white again?
AT: Yeah, I think I’m too old to be starting with new technology.
NM: I need to ask you more about that, because what you think of as old technology is what the young hipsters are now using. Everybody is trying to do film again; you are now a guru.
AT: I don’t see myself as a guru; I was using the technology because of necessity, because of what has been available to me, and also because I’m a very slow person, you know, in understanding. It took me so long to understand this medium and it will take me too long to switch to other mediums.
NM: What camera are you using? I am interested in film cameras; I have a collection and am thinking about moving to negatives.
AT: If this were a private conversation, I would tell you which camera I’m using, but I won’t now because I don’t like being an ambassador or doing free adverts for these big companies, because they don’t plough back to us. But I still use the old cameras.
NM: In terms of format, are you 35mm?
AT: Yes, 35mm, but I also have a medium format. For me it is not about the camera you use, it’s about what you capture. You capture with your heart and your mind before you can capture with any brand of camera. The content, the context, and the meaningare far more important than what brand is better.
NM: I don’t believe I’m good at that. I love imagery because that is how I think about stories, especially for the stage, as I write operas and I try to imagine froma directing and cinematographic sense. I haveto imagine tableaux and what my characters are doing, and therefore what they sound like when they are doing it.I have always wondered, the work you make is portraiture of a certain kind, it’s not in the sense of a person sitting in a pose, but how do you think about composition? In the making of the composition, where are you? Are you finding a way to also reflect yourself? It has always been a mystery to me.
AT: There are moments when I see myself in particular projects, but others where I don’t necessarily. For example, when I talk about the waiting room, there are moments when I am a part of it and others when I am not, when I am a traveller or a stranger with a camera. There are instances when the work becomes personal or I see myself, but not in all the images. Sometimes the projects are collective, maybe as Sowetans, as South Africans, as Africans or maybe all contributing to the idea, the project of humanity. To the betterment of ourselves.When I worked in Kenya and Réunion, I was working with young photographers and I couldn’t speak the language. We are all Africans, but it was clear my access was about my Blackness; other than that I was totally a stranger. It is not always that I am inside the stories; sometimes I am a stranger and sometimes I am within.
NM: I reflect on that when I’m putting stuff on stage. Sometimes, to find resonance I think about this question, the one that the marketing departments always ask, “Who are you writing this for?” However, I am never writing this for anyone, except us, I am writing for myself and for us.
AT: I also ask that question — who are you photographing for and what are you taking [from this]? Most of the time my work is shown in exhibitions, and what are people taking from them? First and foremost, I photograph for myself; I am not so arrogant as to think that I am taking pictures to change the world.I probably thought that way when I was younger, but age and experience show you that it is an illusion. When the work is out there, one does not have control over it, and people look differently; some people can be moved by certain pieces and others not.
NM: For me, I am speaking as a composer. You create an object that is taken on by society, by individualsin society. They do with it and think about it whatever they will, and you have no control over it. At what point do our works reflect society?I see myself and my people in your work. It is often how we describe making work for the stage — the stories we tell and the work that we do really need to reflect the realities of the folks who are there. That’s the only way to find resonance.This is why I don’t understand the machines; the computer and the internet. If you don’t have shared resonance in a shared airspace, a four-dimensional space with bodies and minds sharing and talking, there’s a limited extent to which you can have a sense of complicity, a sense of sharing something truly transformative.For me, the only possibility of seeing yourself as the other is to inhabit the same three or four dimensions.I am having so much trouble [with machines], I don’t like the internet.
AT: One of the things that made me move away from mainstream media was this idea of control: who controls the image and how do you want your images to be seen? People have started talking about this idea of copyright. I have always wanted control of whatI do, since the early stages of my career.When we met in Berlin, five or six years ago, I was surprised that you were working with a visual artist, Emeka Ogboh. We met at a gallery, Ifa. I want to understand the process — is it you completing their work, or are they complementing yours?
NM: In truth, it goes both ways. Emeka and I have been friends for a while and we share a love of Afrobeat and palm-wine music. He conceived this project — he wanted me to do sound work in Ethiopia and called to say, “Can we do it together?”, because he wanted to do it with choirs and I am the guy who works with choirs. So I convened a choir here, but then we installed it at the African Union pavilion, which was a proud moment for both of us. He works with archival material, he’s a sound artist himself,a DJ, but he works visually.Visual work has always been interesting to me, and I have always painted. In terms of stage design, I make my own drawings for the stage. It’s through the process of making drawings that I can understand questions of back or front of the stage, hierarchy, power, voice, and ways of articulating dimensions of voice. The image, for me, is a way I think about scenes, scenography.Visual storytelling becomes a strong element of how I make music for choirs, for operas. It is often a back and forth; I have friends who have invited me to work with them as visual artists, but in turn I have invited friends to work with me on musical projects. Actually, I haven’t worked with a photographer…
AT: My hand is up!
NM: I would love to talk to you about making something. I love the work you’re doing. There’s an image where you photographed someone in a mirror, from inside a car. I have always been fascinated by mirrors; there is a visual illusion there, about which space I am in.
AT: That is from a series I did called City in Transition. I was looking at the transformation of Johannesburg, and the transition of public transportation between townships and the city and the suburbs.This conversation has made it clear that at some point we should work together on a joint project. It would be nice for us to dream together, to be involved in a common project.I am also looking forward to my vinyl, the BLK Sonshine 20th anniversary album.
NM: We are in the process of making that now, so as soon as I have a copy, I will give you one.
AT: I’m looking forward to that.
•Neo Muyanga is best known for his work as part of the acoustic duo Blk Sonshine, but has also spent several years researching, writing, and showcasing opera music across the world.
• Andrew Tshabangu has had a variegated career behind the lens for over three decades, covering subjects as diverse as violence, religious ritual, and urban mobility.
• From the September issue of Wanted 20201