PARIS.- The exhibition and the accompanying book bring together a unique selection of the photographic essays made by Santu Mofokeng over the last thirty years. Well-known from his projects Black Photo Album/Look at me: 1890-1950, Township Billboards: Beauty, sex and cellphones; Trauma Landscapes and Chasing Shadows, the South African artist took the opportunity of the invitation for this show and the production of his first comprehensive monograph, to delve deep into his artistic archive.
Chasing Shadows. Santu Mofokeng, thirty years of photographic essays presents a selection of more than 200 images (photographs and a slideshow), texts and documents. The photographic essays he composed over the years, some of which are a life-long work in progress, range from the Soweto of his youth, from his investigations of life on the farms, the everyday-life of the township and in particular, representations of the self and family histories of black South Africans, to images from the artists on-going exploration of religious rituals and of typologies of landscapes, including his most current project Radiant Landscapes, commissioned specially for this retrospective.
Starting in Jeu de Paume Paris (through 25 September 2011), the show will travel to the Kunsthalle Bern (07 October-27 November 2011), the Bergen Kunsthall (January-March 2012), Extra City Kunsthal Antwerpen (April-July 2012), and the Wits Art Museum Johannesburg (2013).
SOME OF THE ESSAYS PRESENTED
Train Church (1986 / 8 photographs in the exhibition)
With Train Church (1986), considered to be his first photographic essay, Santu Mofokeng explore the phenomenon of train turned into church. In those years, many black people would spend three or more hours every morning and evening travelling to work and back. Commuters would preach the gospel in the packed train, and the ride would no longer be a means to an end, but an end in itself as people from different townships congregate in coaches. This essay captures two salient features of South African life: the experience of commuting which was enforced through removals, resettlements and geographical zoning, and the pervasiveness of spirituality. Santu Mofokeng starts here his on-going exploration of religious rituals and the displacement of places of worship.
Appropriated Spaces (since 1985 / 9 photographs in the exhibition)
With this series Mofokeng continued his research begun with Train Church, considering other ways in which people appropriate spaces and endow them with religious significance, a phenomenon that is not specific to South Africa but is particularly significant there.
Rumours / The Bloemhof Portfolio (1988-1994 / 16 photographs in the exhibition)
In 1988, Santu Mofokeng joined the African Studies Institute (ASI) where he stayed for almost ten years as a photographic researcher. He traveled in the Transvaal countryside, and photographed in Bloemhof sharecroppers, labour tenants or wage labourers on white-owned farms. Mofokeng contributed with his photographs to the Oral History Project, a sound-documentation and repository of the nations rural memory, and to the acclaimed book The Seed is Mine. The life of Kas Maine, a South African sharecropper 1894-1985 by the ASI director and social historian Charles van Onselen.
The essay Rumours/The Bloemhof Portfolio constitutes a genuine archive of rural life in South Africa, the ASI giving Santu Mofokeng the necessary space and time to develop his investigations.
Chasing Shadows (since 1996 / 23 photographs in the exhibition)
It is on Good Friday in 1996 that Mofokeng goes to photograph rituals performed at the Motouleng cave by affiliates of the Zionist Apostolic Faith, the first pictures of the ongoing photographic essay Chasing Shadows, which, in looking at congregations and places within the caves, inquires into the relationships between landscape, memory and religion.
From this essay, an ensemble of images entitled Magic and Disease stand out to evoke the question of AIDS in South Africa.
Township Billboards : Beauty, Sex and Cellphones (1991-2006 / 9 photographs in the exhibition)
In this series Santu Mofokeng embarked on a thoroughgoing study of billboards in the townships, from their appearance and into the recent past.
A distinctive feature of the townships, these billboards are used by the countrys leaders as a prime communications tool, and as such they reflect and sum up the ideology and social, economic and political climate of the country, as well as its changes and transitions.
Child-headed households (2007 / 6 photographs in the exhibition)
Child-headed households takes us into the rural villages of the Northern Province where the death of their parents from AIDS has meant that children have had to take the role of head of the household. Until recently, preventive information campaigns and anti-retroviral drugs were more accessible in the countryside than in the urban townships. Organised by a cluster of fundamentalist churches along with NGOs and philanthropic societies, these campaigns were hampered by the lack of resources and the obstructive effects of the administration and government policies.
In a rural world often stuck in traditional ways and archaic beliefs, certificates systematically attribute death to natural causes: no other information is given. Whereas death in a family is bound to necessitate an adaptation of roles, in traditional societies (societies in transition) it is not uncommon for death to overturn the strict organisation of roles between the sexes, especially in homes headed by children.
Soweto Townships (1982-1989 / 25 photographs in the exhibition)
In 1993 Santu Mofokeng wrote: Soweto has become one of the most familiar photographic landscapes in the world today, along with Somalia, Bosnia, etc. People around the world have developed a set of assumptions about and images of the place, which are then faithfully reproduced by visiting photojournalists with a keen sense of the international market for images. We all know what those images are: images bespeaking gloom, monotony, anguish, struggle, oppression...
All these images, even the most gruesome, have come to possess a kind of comforting familiarity for the international audiences. People assume they know not only what Soweto looks like, but what it is to live there. Well, yes and no. It is not that the violence and squalor that we have become so accustomed to seeing in standard photographs of the township are not real it is just that they are partial realities, which do not encompass peoples lives.
In the exhibition, representation of everyday life in the township is presented in juxtaposition with the The Black Photo Album/Look at me: 1890-1950.
The Black Photo Album / Look at me : 1890-1950 (1997 / 80 slides)
The Black Photo Album assembles old photographs from family collections (portraits, family photographs, etc.) that Mofokeng found or bought and then re-photographed, and paired with the stories relating to the images. For each picture, the artist carried out careful research into the people shown and the context in which it was taken. This constant research and questioning of images of the self and the families history of black South Africans are at the basis of all Mofokengs essays. The Black Photo Album/Look at me: 1890-1950 is presented in the form of a slideshow, as it was at the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale.
Trauma Landscapes, and Landscape and Memory (since 1996 / 26 photographs in the exhibition)
Santu Mofokeng stretches the use of the word landscape to its fullest in order to invoke literal, colloquial, psychological, philosophical, mystical, metaphysical and metonymic meanings and applications.
Should concentration camps and mass graves themselves serve as their own memorials? Would a monument invite remembrance or through a kind of containment, forgetting? Who owns this memory, and who can be trusted with this memory? How to deal with places associated with negatives or disturbing memories ?
With Trauma Landscapes and Landscape and Memory, landscape is the mute witness of histories and narratives. Looking at sad landscapes, landscapes of trauma, Mofokeng interrogates the idea of landscape itself.
Radiant Landscapes (2011, under way)
With Radiant Landscapes, made specially for this retrospective, Santu Mofokeng continues to explore his interest in those invisible evils that are Apartheid and AIDS.
As Patricia Hayes wrote in her essay accompanying this commission, he has photographed the way people relate to spiritual worlds, and even to spirits which, to many South Africans, are an undoubted reality. So is disease such as asbestosis and mesothelioma. He has also photographed sepulchral landscapes such as concentration camps, graves, and disappeared histories. In a way these thematics come together again in his poisoned landscapes, where the human and geographic bodies are both suffering slow toxic attack and gradual transmogrification. These are not about the prose of science, positivism or politics. They are about the use of form to explore the poetics of being in the problem, and allowing forms to surface, like the slow encrustations forming where acid drainage emerges, or symptoms arising from the internal workings of the diseased human body. These are, in a sense, the uneven and parallel precipitations of both climate change and photography itself.