Whitehot Magazine

July 2011, Santu Mofokeng @ Jeu de Paume

Santu Mofokeng, Democracy is forever, Pimville – Soweto, c. 2004
Courtesy Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, Johannesburg, Copyright Santu Mofokeng


Santu Mofokeng: Chasing Shadows
Jeu de Paume
1, place de la Concorde
75008 Paris
24 May through 25 September 2011

Santu Mofokeng is never afraid to admit that his photographs are simply a shadow or trace of both what he saw and what he was able to understand. The connection between shadows and photography for Mofokeng is a poetic visual metaphor: the photographic image is a mere reflection of a scene frozen in time and space, now two dimensional, and like a shadow, a photograph can evoke the presence of that from which it is projected, but it is never a full being. It is simply an essence.

The title for Mofokeng’s first European retrospective comes from a documentary project started in 1996 when the artist photographed the rituals performed at the Motouleng cave by affiliates of the Zionist Apostolic Faith. As an ongoing photographic essay, Chasing Shadows, looks at congregations and places within the caves in order to inquire into the relationships between landscape, memory and religion. When looking at images from this series such as Christmas Church Service, Mautse Cave – Free State, 2000, one has an eerie sense of intrusion as we gaze at a figure in white with his back turned, walking into the cave. We are aware of the poignant spiritual experience that the man strides forth to seek, yet there is a clear distance, both for the photographer and ourselves, and a knowledge that we are not sharing in this experience, but simply looking.

The importance of looking, of the viewpoint of the photographer or individual is at constant play within Mofokeng’s work with the knowledge that a photograph is also a reflection of a past experience or memory. Memory and the subjective viewpoint carry through into the artist’s practice of accompanying his project with essays. In these pieces of writing, Mofokeng does not shy away from expressing a personal viewpoint, of recounting his own experiences and impressions. But what is often more interesting in Mofokeng’s writing is the quotes from the people he has spoken to when taking the pictures, demonstrating an understanding that the subjective viewpoint is infinite and that memories are individual, even if shared. In works such as The Black Photo Album / Look at me: 1890-1950 (1997), Mofokeng has assembled an archive of old photographs from family collections (portraits, family photographs, etc.) that he has found or bought and then re-photographed, and paired with the stories relating to the images. In the gallery, a section of this archive is presented as a slide show, with faded photographs inter-cut with text. After watching the mesmerizing march of faces and text, it becomes apparent that though the texts attempt to name or explain the stories behind the images, the individuals pictured never speak, it is the voice of the subjective viewer that is heard. Mofokeng has carried out careful research on each of the images in his archive but, importantly, he never attempts to come to a complete conclusion about what the image is of, or who the people in them were. Sometimes the texts that are paired with the images include contradictions about the identity of an individual and what they did, once again drawing attention to a multitude of viewpoints. In some instances it has been impossible to track down any information, at which point Mofokeng leaves a question to encourage others to keep looking, asking about memories that may still exist about these people we see in the photographs.

Having spent several years working as a photojournalist in South Africa, Mofokeng is keenly aware not only of the subjectivity of the photographic image but also of the persuasive power that can be harnessed by the media through the manipulation or even simple pairing of word and image. In his series, Township Billboards Beauty, Sex and Cellphones (1991-2006), Mofokeng made a study of billboards in South African townships. In works such as Democracy is forever, Pimville – Soweto, c. 2004, the billboards are scattered against the skyline like the snippets of words in a cubist collage. While in the series as a whole, Mofokeng sought to investigate the appearance and persuasive power of billboard advertising, what is most apparent here is the irony between objects and lifestyle advertised and poverty of the landscape in which they appear. Here the media is not deceptive, but out of touch.

In several essays written during his career, Mofokeng has reflected not simply on the efficacy of documentary images but on their mutability. Coming to the end of Mofokeng’s retrospective, one is struck with the breadth of his vision. His practice is both methodical and exploratory, subjective and inquisitive.

Santu Mofokeng, Christmas Church Service, Mautse Cave – Free State, 2000
Courtesy Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, Johannesburg, Copyright Santu Mofokeng

Anne Blood

 Anne Blood is the Assistant Editor of The Burlington Magazine and the Contributing Art Editor for .Cent. She lives in London.

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