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Iziko: South African National Gallery | Cape Town

To commemorate the photographer’s fiftieth birthday in 2006, Iziko: South African National Gallery has given Santu Mofokeng a mid-career retrospective exhibition. The show fills three large rooms of the gallery. The selection and hanging of the show are Mofokeng’s; the curious title, Invoice, is his choice also.The exhibition comprises work from the major series of Mofokeng’s career by which the photographer has become known, respected and – one must say it – loved by both South African and international audiences. Here are his early depictions of Soweto, his essay on the church-trains – where commuters gather in crowded railway coaches to worship and sing on their way to work – and, most famously, the caves at Motouleng and Clarens: these great African cathedrals, sanctified by the blood of sacrifice and the prayers of generations, appear to resonate with a spiritual life that Mofokeng seems to have opposed to both the habitually reductive representation of oppressed black people and the materialist values of most of his viewers.Like Zwelethu Mthethwa, who uses provocative colour to assert the vitality of his township subjects, Mofokeng has long insisted on attributing a full humanity to his representation of African life, both in the present and in the past. His editing of The Black Photo Album (which is not included in this exhibition) effectively restored to historical memory the image of an emerging black middle class around 1900 that had simply been written out of apartheid history.When these photographic essays were first shown, their claim to represent a richer humanity in spite of material impoverishment appeared to be both idealistic and challenging. In the present exhibition, this assertion is not so confident. Key works from each series have been withheld; and, in each essay, the sequence of works on the wall is interrupted by photographs from other series that happen to share certain formal qualities. This strange counterpoint is occasionally significant, as when an image of buildings at Auschwitz is juxtaposed to a scene of township houses but, for the most part, it tends to negate the dreamlike ambience that the earlier series had so painstakingly built up. Moreover, Mofokeng has replaced the white surround that gave his cave scenes a sense of joyful lightness with wide black frames that now make these same spaces seem heavy and claustrophobic. For some reason, the photographer’s vision has become decidedly pessimistic.Mofokeng’s self-appointed task of representing international sites of trauma, notably Robben Island, Auschwitz and Vietnam, has most likely affected his understanding of human nature. His questions – like William Kentridge’s, of how does landscape contain the horrors it has witnessed? How to memorialize trauma? And, following Adorno, what is the role of beauty in this project? – have obviously caused him to dwell on the dark side of human nature. This anguish is expressed in his decision in 2004 to return to the Motouleng caves in the company of his brother Ishmael who was seeking relief in his battle against AIDS.His image of Ishmael: Eyes Wide Shut is superimposed on the earlier series and converts the sequence from a celebration of the spirit to a meditation on death and loss. Elsewhere in the room smaller photographs document the hope and pain of the pilgrimage but here (and in the photograph that is included in the AIDS exhibition next door), Ishmael appears to hover between the flesh and the spirit, between life and death. I do not know of a more heartfelt and moving account of the impact of AIDS on our society.Darkness also affects Mofokeng’s current image of South African urban life. Whereas before he had been concerned to affirm resourcefulness and vitality and, occasionally, like Guy Tillim at that time, give rein to accident and surprise, his new work continues the method of providing commentary through advertising billboards, only now to confirm that the benefits of democracy reach some but not all of the population. In this dark mood, the spectral form of the headless horse emerging from the vegetation of a Buddhist monastery garden, another key image of the exhibition, takes on distinctly apocalyptic connotations. These images, at once ironic and tragic, perhaps give substance to Mofokeng’s choice of the demanding word Invoice as the title for his exhibition.

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