The arts and the media have a long history of sensationalising and commodifying black pain. Their annals are filled with images of anonymous, aggregated “victims” that have earned their place there by virtue of the atrocities committed against them, while their agency often gets short shrift. What these narratives leave out is the ordinary – the humdrum joys, trials and indignities that do not quite make it into the news cycle.

Footprints, the title of Andrew Tshabangu’s exhibition at Grahamstown’s National Arts Festival (South Africa), is a refreshing departure from this maelstrom. It tries to look at a broad range of black experiences with both an empathetic eye and an unraised eyebrow.

Tshabangu manages to document routine events in a way that imbues his subjects with majesty.

Though the subject matter is geographically varied – impressions from Johannesburg, Durban, Maputo, Malawi and New York are featured – Tshabangu still manages to present a cohesive series that speaks to the lot of individuals lots while remaining broadly relatable.

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The monochrome treatment – Tshabangu only shoots in black and white – adds an archival tinge to the work. Fortunately that has not also resulted in a dry historicity. Each of the images feels vital – particularly in the depiction of leisure and celebration. The subjects seem to have been remarkably unguarded around him. This can most probably be attributed to the time Tshabangu takes to build trust. Whether it is children peacefully floating on a boat or church-goers lying prostrate at a prayer meeting, the lens does not appear to be obtrusive. The result is portraiture that feels incredibly candid.

Letting spaces speak

Born in Soweto in 1966, Tshabangu is known for photographing empty residential spaces and allowing the environment to tell the story. “I believe these spaces speak volumes about the people that inhabit them,” he told the Sowetan Live magazine in 2011. “The arrangement of personal possessions in a room is reflective of the personality of its resident.” One of his works simply depicts an empty room, for example. Inside the room is a neatly made bed, flanked by a single candle.

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Although there is a strong element of magic realism in Tshabangu’s photographs – smoke or mist often envelope his subjects, imbuing them with an otherworldliness and majesty – what really makes him stand out is his engagement with the unspectacular. He manages to document routine events in a way that imbues his subjects with majesty. For instance, the piece above, titled ‘Midnight Mass’, depicting a back-lit man transfixed in worship, is given a sense of solemnity by the high contrast used. African religious practice receives special attention from Tshabangu. He is interested in reverence and ritual on the continent.

According to the artist, the inspiration for his 20-year career came from wanting to create a counter-narrative to the images of violence he had seen in the media. Indeed he has done just that. Footprints, as does so much of his other work, stands as a shrine to the mundane, a castigation of the sensational.

The inspiration for Tshabangu’s 20-year career came from wanting to create a counter-narrative to the images of violence he had seen in the media.

Tshabangu lives in Johannesburg, where he regularly exhibits his work. Tshabangu has conducted photographic workshops in places such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Mozambique, Réunion Islands and Guyana. He has also taken up residencies in Réunion Islands, London, New York and Nairobi.