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Santu Mofokeng

5/8/2021 — 11/27/2021

SM 1053 Mofokeng Ishmael

Conceptual framework

The Walther Collection, in its first monographic exhibition in Neu-Ulm, presents Santu Mofokeng: Stories, a retrospective of the late South African artist Santu Mofokeng (1956–2020). The exhibition consists of sixteen photographic series, displaying everyday life in South Africa's changing society before and after apartheid, based on the 18-volume photobook box set of the same name, which was created in a multi-year collaboration between Mofokeng, designer Lunetta Bartz, curator Joshua Chuang, and publisher Gerhard Steidl. Conceived as a pop-up exhibition in collaboration with Steidl, with lightweight, unframed Tritone prints, Stories represents Mofokeng’s wish that his work could be reproduced and exhibited accessibly and inexpensively by any arts space or organization—particularly on the African continent.

SM 6741 04 Mofokeng Politics
Santu Mofokeng, "Politics," 1985–90

Through a diversity of projects, presented in overlapping chronologies, Santu Mofokeng: Stories examines the meaning and function of photography—questioning its status as evidence and carrier of memories. The exhibition displays how Mofokeng documented the years during and after apartheid, and his reflections on how a democratic South Africa could confront its history. Beginning with his career as a photojournalist, Mofokeng witnessed the same headline-making anti-apartheid struggles as his contemporaries, but unlike them, Mofokeng challenged the function of such widely disseminated images—instead photographing communities, families, and the quotidian lives they lived so as to produce an earnest depiction of South Africa. Mofokeng’s images are celebrated for their nuanced observations, which together create intuitive, intimate, and ambivalent images; in his words, Mofokeng refers to his work as a "metaphorical biography" of his life, inflected by the realities of apartheid, but not defined by it.

SM 6767 14 Mofokeng Soweto
SM 6767 13 Mofokeng Soweto
SM 6767 15 Mofokeng Soweto
Santu Mofokeng, "Soweto," 1985–2000
SM 6767 08 Mofokeng Soweto

The exhibition begins in the basement of the White Cube with "Soweto" (1985–2000), a series that offer a personal insight into the interior of the township, which played a central role in the resistance against the apartheid state. "Politics" (1985–90) collects the work Mofokeng made as a photojournalist and member of the photography collective Afrapix. Rather than reproducing the images of poverty and violence that were common in the media at the time, Mofokeng felt that

It is not that the violence and squalor we have become so accustomed to seeing are not real. It is just that they are partial realities that do not encompass people’s lives.

From 1988 to 1994, Mofokeng routinely traveled to the town of Bloemhof, where he created a chain of projects, from the series "Dukathole" (1988), "Pedi Dancers" (1988–89), "Concert at Sewefontein" (1988), "Funeral" (1990), "Labour Tenancies" (1988–90) and "27 April 1994" (1994). These series together read like a multi-part narrative about the various aspects of rural life, highlighting the asymmetrical power and ownership relationships between black workers and white landowners. The series "Train Church" (1986) and "Johannesburg" (1986–93), contrast how apartheid destroyed neighborhoods, and how communities from different townships allied in prayer. Also on view is "Chasing Shadows" (1996–2010), Mofokeng’s most conceptual project made after the end of apartheid, which features the sacred caves of Motouleng and Mautse.

Slideshow Mofokeng Pedi
Santu Mofokeng, "Pedi Dancers," 1988–89

The Green House includes "Ishmael," a series that commemorates his brother Ishmael, who died of AIDS in 2004; and "Child-headed Households" (2007), a series of photographs that shows families whose lives had been shaken by the HIV epidemic. "Billboards" (1985–2010) looks at South Africa's built and natural environment and examine how public and private spaces reflect the ideology of apartheid and the way the country has dealt with its legacy. On the upper floor of the Green House are the series "Robben Island" (2002), where Mofokeng photographed the infamous prison island where the apartheid regime had held political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Ahmend Kathrada; "Trauma" (1992, 2003), presents photographs of the ancestral gravesites in Bethlehem, Free State in dialogue with photographs of European sites of violence such as Auschwitz; and "Landscapes" (1988–2010), an intensive artistic examination of the landscape as a repository of memory and history.

SM 6706 02 Mofokeng Landscapes
Santu Mofokeng, "Landscapes," 1985–2010

Where his conceptual ingenuity may have outpaced his photography, Mofokeng used language to further his critiques on photography and South Africa in contrarian yet unselfish prose. With his immense talent for words and photography, Mofokeng has been consecrated as one of South Africa’s most important artists, leaving behind a prolific oeuvre that brings attention to the lives that are affected by the dilemmas of history.

Santu Mofokeng’s work is a key part of The Walther Collection, which is one of the largest repositories of his work worldwide. His photographs have been on view in no less than ten collection exhibitions—in Neu-Ulm and New York, and in traveling installations worldwide. His 2013 book, The Black Photo Album / Look at Me: 1890–1950, copublished by The Walther Collection and Steidl, was drawn from an earlier project of the same name, in which he gathered, research, and analyzed a forgotten archive of private photographs commissioned by urban black working- and middle-class families in South Africa between 1890–1950.

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