Artist. Activist. Historian. This man is preserving the past to protect the future
Art is an act of resistance. It asserts our agency. Omar Badsha has identified not only as an artist, but an activist for most of his life. Born in 1945, he grew up under the oppression of apartheid, facing injustice on a daily basis. He was harassed, his work was banned, and his movement was restricted. But Badsha fought back with photography. Today his work as a historian is ensuring that the truth of our past, and our future, remains free.
Badsha discovered his love of politics through his father, being raised in a house where activists came to meet. He had dreams of studying art abroad, but in 1965 was denied a passport by the government. Nevertheless, he continued to create, and that same year one of his woodcuts won the first of many awards. As a man well known for his doggedness, veracity, and humanity, Badsha refused to exhibit his drawings and paintings in segregated galleries. When he joined the trade union movement he turned his eye to photography. Badsha’s first book of photographs, Letter to Farzanah, was banned after release. Now freely accessible, his book depicts the lives of South African children of all races and backgrounds during apartheid. “We came out of a society where our history was actually erased, totally, not recognised,” he says. “But we turned it around during the anti-apartheid struggle.”
Badsha’s extensive photographic work has been exhibited globally, and it’s his emotive images of ordinary people that illustrate the heart behind his activism. In the 1990s, Badsha was finally given his first passport. It was only valid for three months, but the freedom he fought for came soon after as South Africa held its first democratic elections on 27 April 1994. He then founded South African History Online, a non-profit project dedicated to preserving an open history of our country. It’s the largest website of its kind in Africa, and has a virtual classroom to help teach children. In 2017, Badsha was awarded an honorary doctorate by Stellenbosch University. His work serves as a reminder that the pain of our past is not to be forgotten. Instead, it is the key to our future, and our freedom.