Omar Badsha was born in Durban in 1945 and grew up in a Gujarati Muslim family. His grandparents emigrated to South Africa from India in the late 1890s and the family forms part of the small, influential Gujarati Vhora Muslim community. His father, Ebrahim Badsha, was a pioneering artist and a major influence on his son’s artistic and political activities.
In 1965 Badsha came under continued harassment by the security forces for his activism and was denied a passport to travel abroad to study. In the same year he submitted a small wood-cut to the Arts South Africa To-Day exhibition which was awarded the Sir Basil Shornland Prize. For the next eight years he exhibited extensively, winning a number of prizes for his works. Badsha, one of a few artists working outside the commercial white-dominated gallery circuit, refused to exhibit his works at segregated venues and state-sponsored international events. It was during this period that he met and developed a very close friendship with renowned artist Dumile Feni, who intermittently lived and worked with Badsha in Durban for about eight months before he left for London.
In 1970 Badsha worked alongside Rick Turner, Eli and Mewa Ramgobin and other Congress activists on trade union and political issues. Together with Rick Turner and Laurie Schlemmer, he established the Education Reform Association, and later the Institute of Industrial Education The revival of the Natal Indian Congress and the re-emergence of the trade union movement saw him working alongside Harriet Bolton, David Hempson, Halton Cheadle, and Harold Nxasana. They transformed the General Factory Workers Benefit Fund into an integral art of the independent non-racial trade union movement. Badsha served on the board of the IIE and the Labour Bulletin, a publication dedicated to the development of the trade union movement. Early in 1974 he played a key role in the establishment of the Chemical Workers Industrial Union and became its first secretary.
Badsha took up photography in 1976 and three years later, together with Fatima Meer, published his first book of photographic essays, A Letter to Farzanah, which was immediately banned. He began working as a documentary photographer and political activist in the Inanda area of Durban and in 1984, his groundbreaking book Imijondolo, documenting life in the massive informal settlements of Inanda, was published by Afrapix.
In 1982 he was instrumental in establishing Afrapix, the now legendary independent photographic agency and collective. The collective played a leading role in shaping the tradition of social documentary photography and in documenting the popular struggles of the 1980s. In 1982 he 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 works of photographers, recruiting 20 of them to participate in the project. In 1984 he edited and exhibited a collection of photographs titled South Africa: The Cordoned Heart. A book of the same title was published in 1985 and was critically acclaimed internationally as a seminal work that created a new vocabulary to tell the South African story. The exhibition travelled internationally for ten years to major art centres in the US. Despite a great deal of international pressure on the government, Badsha was not given a passport to travel to the opening at the ICP gallery in New York.
In 1987 Badsha moved from Durban to Cape Town to establish the Centre for Documentary Photography at the University of Cape Town. He became a leading artist and cultural activist in the United Democratic Front (UDF) and was one of the founding members and chairperson of the Cultural Workers Congress, an affiliate of the UDF.
In the 1990s, for the first time in his life, Badsha was given a three-month passport to travel to London and the US, where he met his friend Dumile Feni, writer and ANC stalwart Wally Serote, as well as Earnest Cole.
In 1990 Badsha was made head of the ANC’s Western Cape branch, spearheading the formation of FOSACO and participating in the formulation of the ANC’s 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.
After 1994, unlike many activists, Badsha went back to civil society and was active in grassroots work among the youth and cultural workers. He was instrumental in establishing the Ikapa Arts Trust, 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 the largest history websites in Africa.
In 1995 he was the recipient of a grant by 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 at the request of the Indian Government and started a project to document life in his grandparents' ancestral village in Gujarat.
In 2001 Badsha book on life in the Grey street area of Durban Imperial Ghetto (2001), and he edited With Our Own Hands (2002), a focus 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 in South Africa and leading galleries and institutions abroad. Badsha is the recipient of a number of awards for painting and photography. His awards include those of 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 the 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 to exhibit his work, both at home and internationally. Badsha is regarded by many as among the most influential anti-apartheid cultural activists, artists and documentary photographers and public historian in the country.