Through the eyes of Santu Mofokeng
Graham Wood looks at the life of one of SA’s most important photographers
Photographer Santu Mofokeng, who died on January 26 aged 63, was something of a contradiction. In spite of the fact that he was widely admired (he won numerous awards and held more than 20 solo exhibitions at home and abroad), until recently accounts of the astounding body of work he had amassed remained incomplete and fragmentary.
Last year, however, German publisher Steidl released a 21-volume anthology of his photography.
Previously, the most comprehensive publication of his work was a book produced on the occasion of the 2012 survey, Chasing Shadows: Santu Mofokeng, Thirty Years of Photographic Essays, which kicked off in Paris and travelled widely.
Before that, 2001’s Taxi-004: Santu Mofokeng, brought out by David Krut Publishing, provided a slightly more idiosyncratic representation of his achievements, along with an important autobiographical essay, but there was little that was comprehensive.
The Steidl anthology, painstakingly edited by Lunetta Bartz, Mofokeng’s agent and a director of his foundation, and US curator Joshua Chuang, covers his work from 1985 to 2011.
The limited-edition series helped cement his legacy, and, because of its comprehensive nature, for the first time provided a richer context for individual images that had previously only been seen in isolation.
While there was a sense that justice had been done to his achievements, there was a sadness at its heart. It was a project made with the awareness that his days were numbered. In about 2015, he was diagnosed with a degenerative illness, progressive supranuclear palsy. It began with him losing his voice and resulted in him spending the last part of his life bedridden and unable to talk.
Picture of a life
Mofokeng was born in 1956 and raised largely in Orlando East in Soweto. He first started experimenting as a street photographer when his sisters gave him a camera while he was a teenager. He went on to work as a darkroom assistant for various newspapers, and eventually for legendary Drum photographer Jürgen Schadeberg, an experience that cemented his ambition to be a photographer himself.
In the 1980s, Mofokeng worked as a news photographer and went on to join Afrapix, a collective of anti-apartheid photographers. While he sustained his work as a news and documentary photographer for a good many years, he was uncomfortable with the conventions that broadly came to define "struggle photography", especially its sense of spectacle and relentless depictions of suffering. In one essay, he referred to it as a "partial reality" and strove to represent a fuller, more complex picture of ordinary life in SA.
Already in the mid-1980s, many of the characteristics of his later work were apparent in his series Train Church, which represented something of a breakthrough for Mofokeng. The photographs depicted church ceremonies that took place on crowded passenger trains as people commuted to and from Soweto for work, many taken while Mofokeng commuted himself.
Between the late 1980s and for most of the 1990s, he worked as a documentary and research photographer for the African Studies Institute at Wits University’s Oral History Project.
He is probably best known for documenting the lives of rural tenant farmers at this time.
He also began writing extensively about his own work, an aspect of his working life that became increasingly important and set him apart from his contemporaries. Other noteworthy projects during this time include Black Photo Album/Look at me: 1890-1900s, in which he explored photography’s history entwined with colonialism through portraits of black middle-class subjects retrieved from personal collections.
In the early 1990s, he received the Ernest Cole Scholarship at the International Centre for Photography in New York, and many awards and fellowships followed.
One of his longest and most sustained preoccupations was with spiritual life in SA, represented in Chasing Shadows, photographs depicting worshippers of various kinds, from church services to traditional healers.
For this project he returned frequently to caves as sites of spiritual healing, particularly to Motouleng Cave outside Clarens, where he took one of his most recognisable images, Eyes-Wide-Shut, of his brother, Ishmael.
Another, Trauma Landscapes, explored questions of landscape and memory, including Holocaust sites around Europe.
His depictions of the ordinary and apparently unremarkable details of everyday life, combined with the more mysterious aspects of our existence, whether spirituality, trauma or memory, show him turning the limits of photography as a medium into a means of expression itself.
As photographer and writer Teju Colenoted in The New York Times a few years ago: "Mofokeng seems to embrace whatever makes a picture ‘wrong’.’’
The characteristic blurring and trademark deep shadows and scattered light that Mofokeng employs almost seem to be a way of using the signs of strain shown by the medium itself to disturb the typically pristine surface of the truthful or accurate photographic image, gesturing at something beyond what we can see.
Ishmael’s blurred eyes are a prime example, making what we see strange and mysterious and constantly reminding us that what we see in the photograph is incomplete.
Mofokeng’s work exists as an important counterpoint to the more urgent uses of photography in the struggle against apartheid and the documentary tradition in SA.
His work presents not just a unique vision, shot through with an uneasiness with the medium as much as an awareness of its potential, but depicts important aspects of the ordinariness and strangeness at the heart of SA life.