I went to see ‘Chasing Shadows’, the fourth leg of the first in-depth survey of Santu Mofokeng’s work, curated by Corinne Diserens, very much as an outsider – both of the South African photographer’s practice and the history of apartheid in South Africa, which he has continually addressed. The exhibition, in Extra City’s large loft space, consisted of a series of black and white photo-essays, capturing the people and places of his native country. Compiled and edited by Mofokeng over many years, the images convey an infinitely rich story through one man’s lens. Accompanying them were texts written by Mofokeng for the exhibition, offering a lucid, personal reflection on their significance and origins.
‘Train Church’ (1986), the first series in essay format, revealed much about his approach. The images show makeshift religious services and gatherings on commuter trains in mid-1980s Soweto at the height of apartheid. Photographs such as Opening Song, Hand Clapping and Bells or Supplication, Johannesburg – Soweto Line (both 1986) document these spontaneous gatherings on the way from townships to the city, where packed carriages become temporary spaces of religious togetherness. Mofokeng’s lens, which made its way into the crowd to focus on individual faces and bodies, tells a subtler story of collective resistance, one that played itself out in the daily life and surroundings of township South Africa – but was rarely revealed by the photojournalism of the time.
The exhibition’s accompanying publication gave a comprehensive overview of Mofokeng’s work and life, from newspaper photographer to member of the Afrapix photographers collective to the African Studies Institute where he stayed from 1986 until 1998. A story emerges of a photographer utterly invested in his native country during and after its darkest hour yet, through his camera, remained one step removed. ‘Black Photo Album / Look At Me: 1890–1950’ was produced in 1997, after Mofokeng began to question his relationship to his subjects, fearful that he was either victimizing or, worse, exploiting them. Here, he acquired old portraits and snapshots from township families, keen to draw directly from personal histories. Researching the history behind the people, he showed photographs of the found images alongside captions in a slideshow, which was presented for the first time in Okwui Enwezor’s Johannesburg Biennial in 1997 and re-created for ‘Chasing Shadows’.
At Extra City, the rows of small-scale black and white prints showed an unrelenting loyalty to his chosen format, eschewing the contemporary appetite for large-scale, digital colour images. This loyalty to a timeless aesthetic, with its amplification of contrast between light and dark, becomes a loaded metaphor in Mofokeng’s images. Afoor Family Bedroom, Vaalrand (1988), part of ‘The Bloemhof Portfolio’ series (1988–94), included a typically constructed frame, with diagonal shards of light entering a doorway and a child’s silhouette at the front and centre of the image. Faces are rarely seen in Mofokeng’s images, the moments captured are too fleeting.
Mofokeng’s relationship with his country and its fractured past was most explicitly drawn out through his landscapes. ‘Township Billboards’ (1991–2006) captures the uneasy influx of consumerism and state-sponsored messages into South African townships, where large slogans punctured dusty urban landscapes. Mofokeng also photographed the sites of historical atrocities, from the ‘Concentration Camp Graves’ (1999) of Brandfort, where Afrikaner victims of the British were interred during the Anglo-Boer war of the late 19th and early 20th century, to the 2002 series ‘Robben Island’, where political prisoners including Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki were held. More recently, Mofokeng has visited Hiroshima and Auschwitz, seemingly as a means of understanding how different nations and cultures come to grips with and remember their inherited past.
Following its 18-month European tour, ‘Chasing Shadows’ will travel to Wits Arts Museum in Johannesburg. It feels like an important move. Wandering through a gallery in northern Belgium, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Mofokeng feels uneasy about his absorption into Western European art institutions. He is a photographer, writer and storyteller of extraordinary sensitivity, constantly negotiating his own relationship to his country, its history and people. The representation and dissemination of his images demands a similar sensitivity.