Omar Badsha

Omar Badsha | Photographer | Artist

Omar Badsha b. 1945, Durban, Natal (KwaZulu-Natal), lives and works in Cape Town.

Omar Badsha is an award-winning artist, photographer, curator, author, trade union leader, historian, as well as a cultural and political activist. His paintings and photographs have been exhibited locally and globally since 1965 and his works can be found in major public collections across South Africa and in leading galleries and institutions abroad. He is the recipient of a number of awards for painting and photography, including the Sir Basil Schonland Award, Arts South Africa Today 1965, the Sir Ernest Oppenheimer Memorial Award, Arts South Africa Today 1969, the Natal Society Of Arts - Annual Award 1968, and “Images of Africa" First Prize at the African Arts Festival in Denmark, 1993. He is the author of a five books and curator of a numerous exhibitions.  

Born in Durban in 1945, Badsha grew up in a Gujarati Muslim family. His grandparents immigrated to South Africa from India in the late 1890s and the family forms part of the country’s small but influential Gujarati Vhora Muslim community. His father Ebrahim Badsha was a pioneer artist and had a major influence on his son’s art and his role in political activism.

 Badsha first became politically active while at high school. The time was in the wake of Sharpeville and the government banning of the liberation organisation. Badsha became part of a number of open and underground political activities. In 1965 he was denied a passport to travel abroad to study, later that same year he entered a small woodcut in the Arts South Africa Today exhibition and received the Sir Basil Schonland Prize. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful career as an artist and photographer. He became an influential voice in  anti apartheid artists and writers circles. Badsha was one of the few Black artists who worked outside the main stream white-dominated commercial gallery circuit and refused to exhibit in segregated venues or state-sponsored international shows. It was during this period that he met and developed  close friendships with the artist Dumile Feni, the writer Mafika Gwala and the generation of artists that emerged with the rise of the Black consciousness movement.

From 1970, Badsha played a leading role in the revival of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC), and in the reestablishment of the trade union movement alongside Rick Turner, Eli Gandhi, Mewa Ramgobin and other activists. Together with Rick Turner and Laurie Schlemmer he established the Education Reform Association. He worked alongside Harriet Bolton, David Hemson, Halton Cheadle and Harold Nxasana and others in transforming the General Factory Workers Benefit Fund (GFWBF) into the new independent non-racial trade union movement as well as being a founding member of the Institute of Industrial Education (IIE).  In late 1973 he moved to Petermaritzburg to help with the strike of Textile workers and worked as one of the organisers of Trade Union Advisory Coordinating Council (TUACC) unions. With the banning in 1974 of his colleagues David Hemson, Halton Cheadle and others, Badsha made the move back to Durban and acted as TUACC secretary and was responsible for establishing the Chemical Workers Industrial Union.

In 1976, in an effort to document work-related injuries at chemical plants and as a tool for trade union education Badsha took up photography. He started working as a freelance photographer and three years later, worked with banned academics and activists on a book of photographic essays, on children under apartheid. The book A Letter to Farzanah, was then also banned. He worked with the political prisoner Shadrack Maphumulo (also banned) in mobilising people to build community civic organisations in order to lobby for basic amenities and to stop removals in the Inanda area of Durban.

Badsha was instrumental in the initiating the formation of Afrapix, which began in 1982 and is  known as the legendary independent photographic agency and collective. The group played a leading role in documenting the popular struggles of the 1980s. Badsha is recognised for his leading role in shaping the social documentary photography tradition and in 1984 Badsha’s published his seminal book Imijondolo, which portrays forced removals and life in Inanda.

Also in 1982, Badsha became the head of the photography unit of the Second Carnegie Commission on Poverty and Development. He recruited 20 photographers to participate in the project and he curated the highly influential exhibition and book South Africa: The Cordoned Heart. The images were exhibited at a conference held in Cape Town in 1984 and the book was published in 1986. Both the exhibition and the book were critically acclaimed internationally as a seminal work that created a new vocabulary to tell the South African story. Despite a great deal of international pressure the South African government, they refused him a passport to travel to the opening at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York.

In 1987 Badsha established the Centre of Documentary Photography at the University of Cape Town. He became active in the United Democratic Front (UDF) and was a founding member and chairperson for the Cultural Workers Congress, an affiliate of the UDF. 

In 1990, for the first time in 25 years, Badsha was issued a passport, which was valid for a mere three months. He travelled to London and then to the USA on a speaking tour for the ANC. He met his old friend Dumile and other exiled South Africans. He visited Ernest Cole a day before his death.

After the unbanning of the ANC in 1990, Badsha became the head of Western Cape Arts and Cultural Department. He spearheaded the creation of the Federation of South African Cultural Organisations (FOSACO) and worked fulltime as a volunteer as well as  acting as the convener of the Mass Democratic Movement and serving on the political committee of the ANC’s Western Cape 1994 election campaign.

Unlike many other activists he did not make himself available for political office in the new government but rather continued to actively work with civil society and  grassroots youth and cultural workers groups. He was instrumental in establishing the Ikapa Arts Trusts, which organised the annual Cape Town Festival.

In 1995 Badsha received a grant from the Danish Government to document life in Denmark. The exhibition of this work was opened by Vice President Thabo Mbeki and the Danish foreign minister. Badsha travelled to India in 1996 on request of the Indian Government and started a project to document life in his grandparents' ancestral village in Gujarat.

In 1997 his family moved to Pretoria when his wife Nasima was made head of the newly established division of higher education in the Department of Education. In 1999 Badsha established South African History Online (SAHO), a non-profit online history and heritage project which has become one of Africa’s largest history websites.

In 2001 he published Imperial Ghetto, a study of life in the Grey Street complex of Durban, and edited With Our Own Hands (2002), a book focused on the government's poverty relief programmes. Badsha continued developing SAHO and his photographic projects. In 2008 Badsha and his family moved back to Cape Town. In 2015 he had a major retrospective at Iziko National Gallery, Seedtime, which travelled to Johannesburg and Durban. He is currently working on further developing and expanding the arts and culture as well as classroom and curriculum departments at SAHO. He is also a regular juror, speaker and exhibitor at home and internationally. He is regarded by many as one of the leading and most influential anti-apartheid cultural activists, artists and documentary photographers in the country.

View list of awards, publications and exhibitions.

Africa South Art Initiative (ASAI) has provided information about Omar Badsha.

Click here to visit their site.