Omar Badsha was born in Durban in 1945 and 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 political activism.
In 1965 Badsha came under continued harassment by security forces for his activism and was denied a passport to travel abroad to study. In 1965 he entered a small woodcut to the Arts South Africa Today exhibition and received the Sir Basil Schonland Prize. For the next eight years he exhibited extensively, winning a number of awards for his work. Badsha was one of the few Black artists working outside the main stream white-dominated commercial gallery circuit. He refused to exhibit in segregated venues or state-sponsored international shows. It was during this period that he met and developed a close friendship with the artist Dumile Feni. Dumile lived and worked with Badsha in Durban on and off for close to eight months before Dumile left for London.
In 1970 Badsha worked alongside Rick Turner, Eli Gandhi, Mewa Ramgobin and other Natal Indian Congress (NIC) activists. Together with Rick Turner and Laurie Schlemmer he established the Education Reform Association and later the Institute of Industrial Education (IIE).
He worked alongside Harriet Bolton, David Hemson, Halton Cheadle and Harold Nxasana in reviving the NIC and the trade union movement. They transformed the General Factory Workers Benefit Fund (GFWBF) into the new independent non-racial trade union movement. Badsha served on the board of the IIE and the Labour Bulletin and worked as a volunteer in the GFWBF. In 1973 he moved to Pietermaritzburg to help the Textile Workers Industrial Union strike and stayed there as regional organiser for Trade Union Advisory Coordinating Council (TUACC) unions. When Hemson, Cheadle and others were banned in 1974, Badsha moved back to Durban to act as TUACC secretary. In early 1974 he established the Chemical Workers Industrial Union and become its first secretary.
Badsha took up photography in 1976, seeking to document work-related injuries at chemical plants and illustrate the history of the trade union movement. Three years later, together with Fatima Meer, he published his first book of photographic essays, A Letter to Farzanah, which was immediately banned. He started working as a documentary photographer and political activist in the Inanda area of Durban.
Badsha was instrumental in the 1982 establishment of Afrapix, the now legendary independent photographic agency and collective. The group played a leading role in shaping the social documentary photography tradition and in documenting the popular struggles of the 1980s. In 1984 Badsha’s second book, Imijondolo, on forced removals and life in the massive informal settlements of Inanda, was published by Afrapix.
In 1982 Badsha also became the head of the photography unit of the Second Carnegie Commission on Poverty and Development. He travelled the country taking photographs and looking at the work of photographers, and recruited 20 photographers to participate in the project. In 1984 he edited and exhibited a collection of photographs titled “South Africa: The Cordoned Heart”. The book of the same name was published in 1986 and was critically acclaimed internationally as a seminal work that created a new vocabulary to tell the South African story. The exhibition traveled internationally for ten years to major art centres in the US. Despite a great deal of international pressure on the South African government, Badsha was not given a passport to travel to the opening at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York.
In 1987 Badsha moved from Durban to Cape Town to establish the Centre of Documentary Photography at the University of Cape Town. In Cape Town he became a leading artist and cultural activist in the United Democratic Front (UDF). He was a founding member and chairperson of the Cultural Workers Congress, an affiliate of the UDF.
In the 1990s Badsha for the first time in his life received a passport, valid for three months. He traveled to London and then to the US where he met his friends Dumile and Wally Serote, and visited Ernest Cole a day before his death.
Badsha became head of the ANC Western Cape department in 1990. He spearheaded the creation of the Federation of South African Cultural Organisations (FOSACO) and participated in the formulation of ANC cultural policies. He worked fulltime as a volunteer and head convener of the Mass Democratic Movement. Badsha also served on the political committee of the ANC’s Western Cape election campaign.
Unlike many activists, Badsha went back to civil society after 1994 and was active in grassroots work among youth and cultural workers. He was instrumental in establishing the Ikapa Arts Trusts, which organised the annual Cape Town Festival.
In 1997 he moved with his family to Pretoria and in 1999 established South African History Online (SAHO), a non-profit online history project which has become one of Africa’s largest history websites.
In 1995 he 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 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.
Since 1965 Badsha has exhibited widely both at home and abroad. His paintings and photographs 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.
In 2008 Badsha and his family moved back to Cape Town, where he continues to run SAHO and exhibit his work 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.
List of Awards, Publications, Exhibitions 1965 – 2013
- The Sir Basil Schonland Award, “Arts South Africa Today Exhibition”, Durban
- Natal Society of Arts Annual Award
- The Sir Ernest Oppenheimer Memorial Award, First Prize “Art South Africa To-Day”, Durban.
- First Prize, “Images of Africa” African Arts Festival Denmark
- Awarded scholarship to travel and photograph in Denmark, by Danish government
- Awarded scholarship to travel in India by Indian Government
- Awarded citation for Contribution to Resistance Media by Satayagraha Magazine