mofokeng EYES WIDE SHUT

Remembering Santu Mofokeng

South African photographer and writer, Santu Mofokeng passed away on the 26th of January at the age of 64

Santu Mofokeng, Eyes Wide Shut, Motouleng Cave Clarens, 2004. From the series ‘Ishmael.’ Pigment print. © The Santu Mofokeng Foundation. Images courtesy Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, Johannesburg.Santu Mofokeng, Eyes Wide Shut, Motouleng Cave Clarens, 2004. From the series ‘Ishmael.’ Pigment print. © The Santu Mofokeng Foundation. Images courtesy Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, Johannesburg.

Mofokeng died from progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare brain disorder that affected his ability to speak, walk and, eventually, his cognitive abilities.

The artist started as a teenage street photographer in Soweto after he was gifted a camera by his sister; this was followed by stints as a darkroom assistant before he became a photojournalist at the New Nation, an anti-apartheid newspaper that was censored by the government in 1988. Mofokeng was also a member of Afrapix, a non-racial, documentary photography collective that captured the inequality in South African society and the protest movements sweeping the country at the tail-end of the apartheid years.

Santu M-1Santu Mofokeng, Comrade-Sister, White City Jabavu, c.1985. From the series ‘Townships.’ Pigment print. © The Santu Mofokeng Foundation. Images courtesy Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, Johannesburg.

In his earlier work, Mofokeng documented street protests, striking mineworkers and the brutality of the apartheid regime. Despite the political stance of, both, Afrapix and the New Nation, Mofokeng never considered himself an activist or photojournalist. He held a dim-view of mainstream photojournalism and the way black South Africans were represented globally represented by ‘struggle photography’ during apartheid. Art critic Ashraf Jamal once wrote, “while many other photographers have captured the spectacle of protest, Mofokeng has captured the more subtle sublimity of the body in pain, or the body transfigured––by political belief, by faith.”

It is this subtlety and slowness that would come to define Mofokeng’s work.

Mofokeng had a keen interest in everyday life and sought to document the places where he would ‘normally’ go. This patient approach led to intimate photographs of the people who lived in these places – who lived with Mofokeng as he lingered for weeks on end – that defied global perception through their humanity. 

mofokeng CHIEF MORES FUNERAL GAMOGOPASantu Mofokeng, Dove Lady #4, Orlando East, Soweto, 2002. From the series ‘Billboards.’ Pigment print. © The Santu Mofokeng Foundation. Images courtesy Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, Johannesburg.

For a decade – from 1988 to 1998 – the photographer worked for the Institute for Advanced Social Research at the University of the Witwatersrand, as a researcher and visual anthropologist on the institute’s Oral History Project that required him to produce images that represented the lives of people in their homes and other aspects of daily life. This association provided the artist, who often joked that he was a terrible photojournalist because he didn’t drive or stick to deadlines, with the means to work the way he preferred and gave rise to his famous series of photographs shot in Bloemhof, a farming community west of Johannesburg. 

In Bloemhof, Mofokeng amassed photographs between 1988 and 1994 that make up the second volume of his photobook series, Stories. The volume contained Concert at Sewefontein, Funeral and 27 April 1994, a loose trilogy of photo-essays that centred on the relatives and community that surrounded Kas Maine, an elderly sharecropper. The essays described how the denizens of Bloemhof relaxed, buried their dead and gathered together at the dawn of democracy.

mofokeng TRAIN CHURCH UNTITLED 2Santu Mofokeng, Hands in Worship, Johannesburg-Soweto Line, 1986. From the series ‘Train Church.’ Pigment print. © The Santu Mofokeng Foundation. Images courtesy Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, Johannesburg.

Over the years, the artist had 25 solo exhibitions and featured in numerous international group exhibitions, most notably the landmark 2002 exhibition Documenta 11, curated by the late Okwui Enwezor in Kassel, Germany; Mofokeng’s work was also presented at the Venice Biennale in 2007 and 2013.

In 2019, German publisher Steidl released Santu Mofokeng: Stories the artist’s crowning achievement; a 21-volume opus that condenses Mofokeng’s archive of more than thirty thousand frames shot between 1985 and 2013 into 1046 pages containing 551 photographs. In his heartfelt obituary, writer and editor Sean O’Toole says: “the photographs in Stories make a persuasive case for Mofokeng’s place in the pantheon of greats. Not just in South Africa, but globally.”

Storm Simpson