It was on a hot day in 2012 that I came across images by Santu Mofokeng. I was sitting in my uncle’s living room in Lephalale, Limpopo. There was something striking about the stillness in his images and right there I decided I wanted to create work that evokes the same kind of emotions.
I sought to create work that deals with memory, loss, nostalgia and the sense of what it means to truly belong. It was in the same living room about five or so years later that I decided to embark on a body of work titled Ukugrumba, which in Xhosa means “to exhume” or “dig up”, motivated by my family’s trauma.
I revisited the past to shed light on the trauma that apartheid left with the people who lived through that period. I looked at how this trauma continues to plague a new generation of South Africans who are trying to make sense of the turbulent and violent history we inherited.
The work re-examines haunted places that lie bare with memories of a violent time. It also looks for details to fill the vacant spaces in conversations about colonisation, justice, liberation and reconciliation.
The image, titled Place of Rest, is of my uncle’s bedroom in Lephalale. The room has remained vacant since his death. I photographed the image while walking around the house where my mother and her siblings grew up. I came across the room and my first thought was how cold it felt after my uncle’s death.
The image is deeply personal and it was important to me that it be graceful and carefully composed, because the work in Ukugrumba is meant as an elegy to the forgotten soldiers who sacrificed their youth in the fight for liberation. I thought I knew my uncle well until I discovered that there was still a lot I needed to learn. I wanted to understand how being an activist affected the trajectory of his life. The final years of his life culminated in him having distant relationship with his family, illness and a reputation of being “malome wa letagwa”, the drunkard uncle. I took the photograph after I had visited his grave. It was my way of paying homage to his humanity taken from him by apartheid and of reconnecting with him as an ancestor.
Ukugrumba is on at the Market Photo Workshop
To see more of Tshepiso Mabula’s work: