international reviews

Santu Mofokeng, Chasing Shadows: 30 Years of Photographic Essays

Santu Mofokeng at Jeu de Paume

By Hannah Dewar
24 May - 25 September. 0 Comment(s)
Comrade-Sister, White City Jabavu

Santu Mofokeng
Comrade-Sister, White City Jabavu, 1985. Silverprint .

Jeu de Paume, Paris (24 May – 25 September 2011); Kunsthalle Bern (7 October – 27 November 2011), Bergen Kunsthall, Extra City Kunsthal Antwerpen and Wits Art Museum, Johannesburg (dates TBC)

Curated by Corinne Diserens, 'Chasing Shadows' is Mofokeng’s first European retrospective and his most important survey outside of South Africa to date.  Accompanied by his first comprehensive (and desperately needed) monograph, the prospect of the exhibition is a terrifically exciting one; a long overdue reassessment of the ongoing under-representation in Europe of one of Africa’s most important photographers. He is, of course, a recognised figure, but remains – in relation to those such as Goldblatt – one for whom there is still catching up to do, post-apartheid.  A great start, then, is this four-pronged European tour (which arrives in Johannesburg in 2013), and a fresh batch of insightful scholarship.

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Faced – at the top of an imposing flight of white stone steps – with two entrances, I followed the introductory text to the left, where I was led into a series of small rooms exhibiting early township works.  In a display that indicates the richness of the period, we see two women, dancing with alcohol-induced merriment at a shebeen in White City, positioned alongside a lone man, immersed in a private shower at a hostel in Jabulani. This juxtaposition of public and private, defiance and acceptance, is an approach that offers a wider story of township life, presenting images of agency and affect beyond the familiar graphic narrative of struggle and violence.

Whilst the yellowish light in these initial rooms seemed to erase the intricate texture of the prints, the light in the three main rooms, entered by returning to the original entrance, was almost ethereal. Displayed alongside contextualising wall texts from Mofokeng’s writings, photographs were hung thematically in small narrative groups. First we see works from the struggle era (interestingly contextualised by Weekly Mail and New Nation newspaper clippings from his Afrapix years) juxtaposed – face to face across the room – with the series 'Train Church'. A row of police wielding sjamboks and a smiling Comrade-Sister who performs for the camera in White City Jabavu, sit in strange dialogue with sermons and supplications on crowded commuter trains: an interesting parallel that expresses both the realities of life under apartheid, and the creative resistance strategies developed by those who endured it.

Also contextualised by Mofokeng’s Afrapix history are the 'Billboards', which sit along an adjacent wall. Curiously, Democracy is Forever, Pimville (2004) – a pivotal work in the series – is estranged from the group and placed in the entrance hall. Evocative of his interest in the way billboards ‘retain their appeal for social engineering’ as repositories of cultural, social and political power, the series reveals Mofokeng’s particular political vision. Commenting with bitter irony on the billboard’s conflation of commercial consumerism with the vocabulary of apartheid struggle, Democracy is Forever juxtaposes two contradictory versions of South African life: the sparkling ideal of the Rainbow Nation, and the reality of existence for the citizens who, blurred into anonymity, live in its shadow.

A seminal series in Mofokeng’s oeuvre and one which, as the exhibition title implies, was critical to its curatorial imagining, 'Chasing Shadows' (1996-2006) takes centre stage in the central room.  Taken at the Motouleng Caves, Clarens – a sacred site where religious ceremonies and mystic rituals are performed, often as cures for the sick – the work functions as a biography of both the landscape and its inhabitants.  Through a beautiful selection of complementary works, Diserens creates lyrical associations that illuminate the habitudes and idiosyncrasies of life in the caves. Sisters, leading initiates in the afternoon ingoma, are contextualised by an Easter Sunday Church Service, devotedly attended by women in white robes; a chicken, pecking for scraps at the base of a stone offertory to which he may, in time, become victim, is contextualised by a washing line – laundry day in the mystic interior.  The iconic Eyes-Wide-Shut: Motouleng Cave, Clarens (2004) punctuates the display, printed large scale and centred within the group.  Functioning simultaneously as a portrait of his brother Ishmael, shortly before his death from AIDS, and a comment on governmental ineptitude, it is a stunningly moving work.  ‘If apartheid was a scourge,’ Mofokeng reminds us, ‘the new threat is a virus; invisible perils both.’

In opposition to the vast prints of Hugo and Mthethwa, Mofokeng continues to print on an intimate scale (the size of each work determined by the artist, in accordance with its subject) long since printing technology has allowed him to do otherwise. Far from enforcing uniformity, Diserens celebrates this diversity, allowing prints of varying sizes to co-exist, contributing in their own way to the coherent narrative whole.  Ishmael at Motouleng Cave, Clarens (2004) is one of the smallest on view; a delicate piece that references the fragility of his brother’s health at the time of the trip. Yet whilst Mofokeng speaks of having to push his brother in a wheelbarrow through the caves (such was his weakness), this image pictures a man striding confidently, focused on the path ahead. Clutching the plastic bottles that had perhaps contained the holy water from which he drank, this is both a portrait of a man invigorated by the powers of the sangoma, and (in response to 'Train Church') a comment on the power of spirituality as a strategy of resistance under adversity.

The final room is dedicated to Mofokeng’s landscapes, and presents South Beach (2007) – a beautiful example from the 'Climate Change' series with a complex and intricate grainy surface and a mesmerising horizon that disappears into the waves – alongside his visits to the ‘shadow grounds’ of Europe and Asia which exemplify his role as philosopher and the universality of his thinking. 'Radiant Landscapes', a new project produced for the exhibition, introduces a rare glimpse of colour into a world of monochrome. Aside from a handful of works across his career, Mofokeng has always utilised black and white; a poetic language that remains crucial to his particular vision of South Africa as both a reference to the documentary genre and a gesture of resistance to the colour-rich saturation of consumer culture. Functioning as a visual essay on the invisibility of disease, and including images of disused asbestos mines alongside sangoma cleansing rituals, 'Radiant Landscapes' reads as an interesting continuation of 'Chasing Shadows' and Ishmael, and a philosophical project that grapples with the legacy of apartheid.  What are the lasting effects of maltreatment on lives and landscapes, it asks, and what becomes of the ruins that remain?

Often excluded from presentations of his work, the inclusion here of The Black Photo Album: Look At Me (1890-1950) (1997) – a slide-show installation that rescues and reinstates forgotten archival photographs – is noteworthy.  Contextualised with an interview and research documentation, the presentation emphasises Mofokeng’s role as archivist, revealing the concern for agency that has characterised his life’s work.  But whilst the project’s inclusion is key, its presentation – in the corner of one of the first dimly-lit rooms, at the furthest distance from its contextualising material – is a little disappointing.  Whilst it would have worked much more successfully had it been given the space to function in its own right, we are left to assume that budget constraints just couldn’t accommodate the cost of building a separate space.

Claude Cahun, immaculately staged in the ground floor rooms, is perhaps the focus of the Jeu de Paume’s summer programme, and by comparison Mofokeng does appear a little neglected.  The exhibition rooms are quiet (considering each ticket serves as entry to both shows) but for the visitors who make it up the stairs, the rewards are superb.  Far from the purple painted walls downstairs, Diserens’ clean, articulate and extraordinarily sensitive approach lets the works speak on their own terms, which is ultimately what Mofokeng intended for them.  Hers is a strategy which showcases the enduring ‘ambivalence’ of his work, as Okwui Enwezor terms it in his enlightening essay; not, by any means, a disengagement with his subject matter, but a refusal to judge which allows us to penetrate to its very core.
Establishing Mofokeng as a gifted philosopher and a remarkable poet, 'Chasing Shadows' presents a powerful overview of change and continuity in his practice, addressing the scope and breadth of an intensely complex career.  Seen in light of her recent pairing of Mofokeng and Goldblatt as part of 'Appropriated Landscapes' at the Walther Collection in Ulm (June 16 2011 – May 13 2012), Diserens has done much to raise the profile in Europe of an extraordinary figure.

Hannah is a history of art graduate and critic based in London who is currently a curatorial intern at Tate Modern.