Santu Mofokeng: Stories

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Steidl (here). A total of 21 saddle stitched softcover booklets with variously colored covers, housed in a stiff cardboard sleeve, and delivered in a folded cardboard carrying box with handle. 1046 pages, with 551 tritone image reproductions. Includes essays and descriptions by the artist. In an edition of 1000 copies. Design by Lunetta Bartz, Joshua Chuang, Gerhard Steidl, and the artist.

The imagery is divided into 18 sections, as follows:

  1. Train Church: 52 images, 1986
  2. Concert at Sewefontein: 17 images, 1988
  3. Funeral: 21 images, 1990
  4. 27 April 1994: 20 images, 1994
  5. Soweto: 35 images, 1985-2008
  6. Dukathole: 29 images, 1988
  7. Johannesburg: 22 images, 1986-1993
  8. Politics: 38 images, 1985-1990
  9. Pedi Dancers: 9a – 40 images, 9b – 29 images, 1988-1989
  10. Labour Tenancies: 10a – 35 images, 10b – 35 images, 1988-1994
  11. Caves: 11a – 31 images, 11b – 35 images, 1996-2010
  12. Robben Island: 7 images, 2002
  13. Trauma: 19 images, 1992-2003
  14. Landscapes: 31 images, 1988-2010
  15. Appropriated Spaces: 21 images, 1998-2011
  16. Billboards: 11 images, 1986-2010
  17. Child-Headed Households: 17 images, 2007
  18. Ishmael: 5 images, 1984-2004

(Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the past decade or two, the retrospective box set has become a more prominent subgenre in the photobook world. Until recently, an exhaustive multi-volume summary of a photographer’s career was something of a rarity – MoMA’s four book Atget series from 1981 became a landmark, but there have been few such wide ranging endeavors since. Depending on an artist’s output, either a tightly-edited single volume retrospective survey or a catalog raisonne (for those with less total works) can usually get the job done in terms of creating a definitive scholarly resource. But perhaps taking a cue from the music industry, box sets are starting to appear with more frequency, not only hitting the high points of an artist’s career, but delving into rarities and overlooked gems.

Steidl’s new box set of Santu Mofokeng’s photographs, humbly entitled Stories, is an astonishing publication, and I don’t choose that word lightly. For those that know little of the South African photographer’s career, Stories is a consistent eye-opener, the kind that makes you wonder how it could be possible that such a major talent is not more widely known and appreciated. And even for those who have a deeper grasp of Mofokeng’s significant bodies of work and his many accomplishments, there are still plenty of notable discoveries to be made in this collection.

The short version of Mofokeng’s artistic biography starts with him coming to photography in his late 20s, and soon progressing from freelancer to member of the Afrapix collective and researcher at the African Studies Institute at University of Witwatersrand. Some of his best work comes from the late 1980s and early 1990s, during both the last decade of the apartheid regime and the movement toward democracy, and his position as a black photojournalist who grew up in Soweto gave him an inside perspective on what was happening, both socially and politically. That vantage point was rooted in a photographic humanism like that of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, or Eugene Smith, where a sociologist’s interest in patterns, details, and causes and effects was matched by a profoundly empathetic eye for the nuances of everyday life.

This box set organizes Mofokeng’s work into 18 discrete units, each organized around a subject matter theme and housed in a separate booklet (three of the themes extend to two booklets, bringing the total to 21). So while a chronological structure might have made it easier to see how Mofokeng was progressing through his career, this approach puts his choice of subjects at the center of the analysis, and those subjects can then be grouped further into the major ideas that form the foundation of his artistic approach.

The subtleties and rhythms of ordinary daily life, as lived in the specific place of South Africa, lie at the center of Mofokeng’s photography – again and again, he has returned to visual variations on how people make homes, raise families, do work, and find joy in the face of misery. His pictures of township life in Soweto (booklet 5), made over three decades, lie at the heart of this investigation. He shows us endless tin roofed shanties and makeshift rooms, cinder block communal showers, trash strewn streets, and loose livestock, but these unforgiving truths are matched by sensitive moments of human observation – the weariness of a market seller, the embrace of sisters, the quiet discussion of men, the smoke rising from a hot stove, the work of sewing in an open doorway or repairing a car, and the play of children with an old tire, or an improvised swing hung off an electrical tower, or whacking golf balls in the long grass. He sees Soweto as much more than just the international symbol it later became; his images are not only stylistically sophisticated, they are infused with rich respect for the people building their lives there.

Mofokeng applied this same approach not just to his hometown, but to many locations around South Africa. He visited the township of Dukathole on the verge of forced relocation (booklet 6), seeing the rituals of marriage and death taking place alongside anxiety etched on faces and dark smoke rising in the air. He got even closer to families ravaged by AIDS, where children were forced to become the heads of the households (booklet 17), noting the changing roles and familial rituals found in that situation, from a boombox as the central decoration for an otherwise bare room to a young boy making dinner in deep shadows. And he similarly turned his attention to life in the bustling city center of Johannesburg (booklet 7), marveling at dense crowds and dusty construction while paying attention to a solitary man in a doorway, another pushing an enormous bale of cardboard, and a woman blowing out birthday candles among friends.

When Mofokeng documented the life of tenant farmers in rural Bloemhof (booklets 10a and 10b), he not only watched closely as people worked the land of white owners – cutting sunflowers, harvesting corn, carrying heavy sacks, driving tractors, and taking a break in the thin shadows of farm equipment – he worked hard to understand how people were making new lives for themselves so far from home. He found people decorating their mud homes with elaborate geometric patterns, gathering around nighttime fires, resting together in the long weeds, and drinking, smoking, and listening to the radio amid the echoing silence. There is more space and emptiness in these pictures, with families battling the sense of dislocation with small familiarities and lonely companionship.

But Mofokeng didn’t stop there in terms of trying to get underneath the surface of migrant labor. He made a number of powerful pictures of Pedi dancing competitions (booklets 9a and 9b), where large gatherings became avenues for reconnecting to cultural traditions. These images are filled with passionate foot stomping and exuberant movement, with drumming, clouds of dust, shouting, singing, and whistle blowing coming together in a cacophony of energy and much needed release. The weekend concerts at Sewefontein (booklet 2) provided a similar path outside the drudgery of everyday life, with talent shows and singing performances providing an opportunity to relax, get together, and be something other than just a farm laborer.

Spirituality, and how have people created space for it inside their lives, has been a consistent topic of interest for Mofokeng across his career. His images of improvised train churches created by and for commuters (booklet 1) are perhaps his best known project, the impassioned prayers and singing taking place amid the crowded aisles. He similarly sought out spirituality being actively practiced in a variety of appropriated spaces (booklet 15): in public parks, under highway overpasses, in parking lots, and along roadways, seeing the need for belonging springing up even in places ill suited for such congregation and contemplation. Caves (booklets 11a and 11b) were another venue for spiritual practice, often mixing pagan beliefs and Christian rituals, and Mofokeng consistently returned to various cave sites, making sensitive photographs of pilgrims, painted inscriptions, rock walls, and sacrificial animals, in a sense, searching for the power thrumming through these rugged locations. His images of the funeral of Miriam Maine (booklet 3), with whom he had stayed during his trips to Bloemhof, trace the lines of ritual and responsibility in another direction, following the long line of mourners and the dusty burial. And his tender reminiscences of his brother Ishmael’s life (booklet 18), particularly his choice to become a sangoma, bring together the layered consequences, emotions, and burdens of spirituality into sharp personal clarity. The thread that ties all of this work together is the very real and human search for direction, meaning, and catharsis in a world that hasn’t offered many good choices.

As a photojournalist working in the 1980s and 1990s in South Africa, Mofokeng was naturally drawn into photographing politics, but his pictures (booklet 8) nearly always document the people rather than politicians or elected leaders. Emotions run high in many of these scenes, with arms raised, sticks brandished, and armed police standing at the ready. But Mofokeng isn’t really an action or unrest shooter, and instead gives the protests and rallies a human face, turning his camera toward chains of people holding hands blocking the street, attentive crowds listening to speeches, and exuberant masses (walking in dense throngs, falling out of bus windows, perched up on high walls) gathering to hear Nelson Mandela. His images of the 1994 elections (booklet 4) mix communal apprehension and confidence, with long lines of determined voters matched by methodical officials working to ensure the integrity of the democratic process. Mofokeng also used pictures of billboards (booklet 16) as a way into documenting the inversions of politics and contemporary culture, where upbeat slogans are paired with rotting trash heaps, women pushing overfilled carts, and dirty roadsides.

One underappreciated portion of Mofokeng’s artistic career found in this collection is his work in the landscape genre. When shooting rolling farmlands, hillsides covered with crosses, wide vistas, misty forests, dusty rock mesas, and even beachscapes, Mofokeng seems to be looking to document the hidden emotional history of that place. His landscapes (booklet 14) are dark, both in tone and mood, with the weight of what has taken place in that spot, however forgotten, still very much present. They feel like a psychic reclamation effort, or an active attempt to wrestle with now invisible ghosts and memories, where a field of melons looks hauntingly like skulls. The same is true of Mofokeng’s trip to Robben Island (booklet 12), the infamous spot of Nelson’ Mandela’s long incarceration. In his images, the place echoes with heavy emptiness, the rock walls still imposing and a few lonely seagulls trying to fill the immensity of the sky.

Steidl has taken some risks with the design of this box set, some of which work effectively and some of which don’t. The key design choice was to employ oversized, almost tabloid-style reproductions, with the horizontal images each placed on a full spread and vertical images paired in twos, the reproductions running nearly to the edge of the paper. This is an inspired and excellent decision, as the images feel massive, tactile, and enveloping, bringing us into their dark corners, blurred movements, and thoughtful framings – it’s a far more powerful and emotional presentation than a more sober and restrained structure would have produced.

A second positive about this collection is how strong Mofokeng’s writings are. Each booklet has a short essay filled with background thoughts, anecdotes, and other histories and memories that provide context for the images that follow, giving the pictures a voice that feels intimate and personal. He certainly doesn’t need a curator to tell his story, even though I am sure there are broader art historical and photojournalistic frameworks worth placing Mofokeng within.

While I wonder about the long term durability (and library-friendliness) of the paperback booklets and the cardboard carrying box (mine is already cracked and fraying on the main edge with almost no use), the key problem with the design is the lack of supporting detail. The pages are unpaginated, so it is very difficult to refer to a certain image without counting. The booklets also mystifyingly lack any detailed image by image information, even in index form – there are no captions, titles, locations, or specific dates provided, which seems like a major omission, so scholars will be hard pressed to use this as a reference tool. Also, the rainbow-colored booklet covers are a distraction from the otherwise serious presentation.

In general, I do see why Steidl took the unconventional path of a box set with this project – since the quality of the work is so consistently high, it would have been maddeningly impossible to edit this work down much further to try to shoehorn it into a smaller form factor without giving up both deserving breadth and depth. (As an aside, selecting one or two images from each booklet for the array above felt like a fool’s errand – how could one possibly choose from so many indelible images?) The aggregation effect that takes place when slowly looking through these booklets is important, as it cements the conclusion that Mofokeng is undeniably a master photographer.

In the end, this is an expensive package that will resultingly limit the number of people who actually experience it, which is the biggest downside to this laudable effort. Given the quality and quantity of what is included here, Mofokeng deserves top tier international renown. Let’s hope that some influential curators and gallery owners are exposed to this superlative edit, so that his work finds its way into the discussion more often than it has to date.

Collector’s POV: Santu Mofokeng is represented by Maker Studio in Johannesburg (here). His work has not been widely available in the secondary markets, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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