In 2006, when photographer Santu Mofokeng turned 50, this humanist chronicler of black South African life, who began his career as a street photographer in 1970s Soweto, oversaw a survey of his black-and-white photographs at South Africa’s National Gallery in Cape Town. Marked by its loose fidelity to chronology and idiosyncratic juxtapositions of individual photos, the exhibition, titled “Invoice,” was described by the artist as “a kind of statement, an account of events, people and places in pictorial narrative.” Though largely constructed from the same photographic archive, “Santu Mofokeng: Chasing Shadows,” the artist’s first international retrospective, is a very different affair.
Comprising some 200 photographs, mostly black-and-white, and occupying the entirety of the top floor at the Jeu de Paume, its first stop, the exhibition presented Mofokeng’s photographic essays as discrete series in which the artist explores spirituality, kinship, landscape and the everyday circumstances of black South Africans. Ephemera from the artist’s pre-exhibition career as a press photographer and visual anthropologist added depth. Mofokeng’s experiences during the turbulent 1980s caused him to question the possibilities of the news genre, a point of crisis that coincided with calls by black intellectuals to recover ambiguity and nuance in the portrayal of black life. “It is not that the violence and squalor we have become so accustomed to seeing in standard photographs of townships are not real,” wrote Mofokeng in a 1993 magazine article on display, “it is just that they are partial realities.”
Organized by Corinne Diserens, an independent curator, this elegant and considered exhibition opened with Mofokeng’s 1986 “Train Church,” a record of the claustrophobic church meetings held on racially segregated commuter trains. The installation included a slide projection of “The Black Photo Album/Look at Me: 1890-1950,” miscellaneous obscure family portraits found, assembled and researched by Mofokeng, and more typically seen as prints. His late 1980s study of rural farm workers, “The Bloemhof Portfolio,” austerely lyrical, was displayed in close proximity to an abbreviated 2007 essay on AIDS-afflicted households supervised by adolescents. The exhibition culminated with the series “Radiant Landscapes” (begun 2010), 16 sometimes cryptic and unyielding photos of environmental despoliation, among them four tightly framed and abstracted color studies of polluted Johannesburg waterways that were the exhibition’s least convincing works.
Each series was introduced by a wall text written by the artist. Some passages were florid in a way that his photos are not; however, his “Radiant Landscapes” text was illuminating. It recalled his brother, Ishmael, who died of HIV-related complications in 2004. Ishmael’s apparitional portrait appeared on the wall opposite “Radiant Landscapes,” in “Chasing Shadows” (1996-), an ongoing project recording religious practices at two caves in the Free State province. The juxtaposition of these two series underscored Mofokeng’s somber belief that there is reciprocity between the sick body of the polis and its polluted landscapes.
[The exhibition travels to Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland, Oct. 7-Nov. 27; Bergen Kunsthall, Norway, January-March 2012; Extra City Kunsthal, Antwerp, Belgium, April-July 2012; and Wits Art Museum, Johannesburg, in 2013.]
Photo: Santu Mofokeng: Laying of Hands—Johannesburg-Soweto Line, 1986, from the series “Train Church,” gelatin silver print, 15 by 22¾ inches; at the Jeu de Paume.