Taxi-004: Santu Mofokeng
Text by Santu Mofokeng and Sam Raditlhalo
Published by David Krut in association with the French Institute of South Africa, Pro Helvetia - Arts Council of Switzerland, the Royal Netherlands Embassy and the MTN Art Institute
Review by Sophie Perryer
Released towards the end of last year, the fourth art book in the Taxi series, initiated by IFAS and published by David Krut, is a glossy black and white volume on the work of Johannesburg-based photographer Santu Mofokeng. Preceded by monographs on Jo Ractliffe, Samson Mudzunga and Jeremy Wafer, the publication slots comfortably into the increasingly collectible series, sharing the slim, cut-down A4 format but establishing its own identity through subtle particularities of design and layout.
The high-contrast black and white cover, a feature common to the series, is particularly well-suited to Mofokeng's work, in which the interplay of light and dark assumes a central role on multiple levels. In the dramatic cover image, the silhouette of a child provides a point of entry into a township room, light entering through a doorway to illuminate a dusty floor, a chicken, the corner of a bed, and a bicycle. The silhouette suggests both absence and presence, echoing the figure of the photographer and inviting the insertion of the viewer, thus foregrounding the ideological role of representation in which Mofokeng declares his interest.
The book contains two texts, the first an autobiographical piece by Mofokeng. Called Lampposts, the text posits the titular objects variously as impartial witnesses, physical markers, instruments of surveillance and casters of light on various episodes in the photographer's life and career. Born to a migrant worker and a domestic servant in Johannesburg in 1956, Mofokeng began his career in a newspaper darkroom and went on to join the Afrapix collective of freelance photographers. Throughout the telling of his life story, darkness is a recurring motif, moving in and out of the picture in a variety of guises - death, loss of consciousness, the disappearance of a child, the tsotsi lurking in the shadows, the "dark room" where images are processed ... Mofokeng's writing offers the perfect textual equivalent to his images, using brief anecdotes to describe entire realms of experience.
The second text, Communities of Interpretation, is by Sam Raditlhalo, a lecturer in the English Department at the University of Venda. He writes accessibly and intelligently about the context of Mofokeng's work - the overt politics of the struggle years, and the photographer's subsequent interrogation of the politics of identity and representation of history. Mofokeng's 'Black Photo Album/Look at Me 1890-1950' exhibition is extensively referred to here, and it seems strange that none of this seminal work is reproduced.
Among the images, Mofokeng's bleak and empty landscapes are particularly beautiful, whether of dunes near Sossusvlei in Namibia or Germiston mine dumps. The majority are scenes from township life: a child peeing in the dark "near Maponya's discount store, Soweto"; a solitary man showering at Jabulani hostel; the turned back of a mourner at Dukathole Funeral, Germiston; a "limbless doll" in Klerksdorp district; "pensioners en route to pay point, Bloemhof".
It's difficult to figure out how the images in the book have been selected and ordered. This is obviously not a comprehensive overview of Mofokeng's oeuvre, as the absence of the 'Black Photo Album' attests. The images don't seem to run in chronological order, although this is conjecture as no dates are included in the captions, which are relegated to a page near the back. This is one of the few criticisms that can be levelled at the book - much of Mofokeng's work is documentary in nature, and while his images can certainly stand up for themselves, in many cases the captions provide useful, if not vital, information. For example, an image of a man with his head on the ground, possibly dead, turns out to be part of a sangoma initiation. The separation of images and captions is frustrating, and the lack of dates a serious flaw if - as is obviously intended - the book is to be used in research.
In all, however, this is a beautiful and accessible publication that can be read in one sitting but returned to for further perusal many times. Mofokeng's text is translated into French and Dutch, although Raditlhalo's is in English only. Like all the Taxi books, it is accompanied by an insightful educational supplement by Philippa Hobbs of the MTN Art Institute, targeting teachers and students at high school level. The book and supplement together cost R150, and are available in selected bookshops and galleries.
For information and orders contact Bettina Schultz - David Krut Publishing: firstname.lastname@example.org, tel: 011 646 8595; or Maud Félix Faure - French Institute SA: email@example.com, tel: 011 836 0561.