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IMPERIAL GHETTO (article first published : 2001-08-22)

On show at the Durban Art Gallery at present is Imperial Ghetto, a photographic diary of people and events encountered by Omar Badsha in the “Grey Street” or “Coolie Town” area which grew in the face of white resistance at the heart of the then colonial and later apartheid city of Durban. The title Imperial Ghetto is a ironic play on the fact that the network and labyrinth of streets at the heart of the ghetto were named by the colonial administration after Queen Victoria, her children and leading members of the Imperial establishment.

The photographs taken between 1978 and 1986 cover the period when hundreds of families who had lived in the area since the early part of the 20th century were forced to move. Photographer Omar Badsha was an active participant and witness during this time of growing militancy which saw the rise of worker and community anti-apartheid and resistance groups. He played an active role in the South African liberation struggle as a cultural and political activist and trade union leader.

In 1979 his first book of photographs Letter to Farzanah, published to commemorate the International Year of the Child, was banned. In 1982 he was instrumental in establishing Afrapix, the now legendary independent photographers agency and collective. The collective played a leading role in shaping the social documentary photography tradition and in documenting the popular struggles of the eighties.

In 1984 his book on life in the massive informal settlements of Inanda outside Durban was published. Badsha was one of the people active in establishing the first residents associations in the Amaoti section of the community. In the 80’s Badsha headed the photographic unit of the Second Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Development in Southern Africa and edited South Africa: The Cordoned Heart, the seminal book on life in South Africa in the 80’s which travelled internationally for ten years.

Since 1965 he has exhibited widely at home and abroad. His paintings and photographs are to be found in all the major public collections in South Africa and leading international galleries and institutions. Other books by Badsha are Ninety Fighting Years, a Pictorial History of the Natal Indian Congress, NIC Durban, 1984, Beyond the Barricades, 1989 (Aperture and Kliptown Book) together with Weinberg, Mendel and Harris.

Badsha is the recipient of many prestigious awards for painting and photography. In 1995 he was a recipient of an award by the Danish Government to document life in the country and the exhibition was opened by the Danish foreign minister and Thabo Mbeki who was then vice president. He travelled to India in 1996 at the quest of the Indian Government to document life in his grandparents ancestral village in Gujarat.

Badsha lives in Pretoria and is the Director of South African History Online, a internet education project on South Africa history. Imperial Ghetto runs until September 20.




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