Mofokeng, Santu


South African, 1956-2020


A member of the Afrapix collective of South African documentary photographers throughout most of the 1980s, and a former student of David Goldblatt, Santu Mofokeng worked to challenge the ways that conventional photographic archives have been employed to ideological ends. While his work may be read as a sustained engagement with apartheid- and post-apartheid-era photojournalism, one sustained project dating to the late 1980s helps to contextualize Mofokeng's inquiry into the relationships between images, archives, and citizenship as they emerged during a much earlier moment in the history of photography.

Developed while Mofokeng was a documentary photographer and researcher at the Institute for Advanced Social Research at the University of the Witwatersrand (1988–98), The Black Photo Album/Look at Me: 1890–1950 instead posits an unofficial archive—an extensive collection of locally commissioned family photographs that the artist sourced, copied, scanned, retouched, and presented as an alternative to the state-based South African photographic apparatus. Here, Victorian parlor conventions of posture, dress, manner, and costume frame highly focused subjects as they sit for the camera amidst theatrical props, such as pillars or tapestries. These portraits, unseen and overlooked for decades, convey a sense of pride, thoughtfulness, wisdom, and above all, agency.

The historical specificity of Mofokeng's project is crucial for understanding the emergence of photography as having been deeply entwined with the colonial enterprise. Mofokeng's project stresses the fact that the official archives created and extended by the South African state during that period were instruments of power, and that the vast collections of passport photographs, officially commissioned portraits and governmental documentation of the townships culminated in the portrayal of black Africans as beings to be managed and administered. Never fully recognized as citizens, they were stripped of their sovereignty, measured, ordered, and categorized according to earlier models of pseudoscientific race theory. By contrast, Mofokeng's archive enacts a quite different history, bringing to new light a group of subjects who commissioned and posed for their own photographs, promoting a circulation of images that remained largely private and community-based, on display for consumption at a slight remove from the gaze of colonial governance.

In his photographic essay Trauma Landscapes, Mofokeng extended his personal exploration of sites imbued with historical significance and traumatic memories. He asked, what happens when a landscape becomes disassociated from its past? —metaphorically reclaiming the land for himself, stating, “What is not in the photograph is in knowing.” Positing that “landscape appreciation is informed by personal experience, myth, and memory,” Mofokeng asserted that landscape “is also informed by ideology, indoctrination, projection, and prejudice.”

Artworks by Mofokeng, Santu

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