Extraordinary Narratives // Chasing Shadows – Thirty years of photographic essays // Santu Mofokeng // Bergen Kunsthall
Chasing Shadows – Thirty years of photographiv essays
Bergen Kunsthall, Bergen
13. January- 26. February 2012
Published: Camera Austria No. 117 // 2012
Are these mere solemn relics of disrupted
narratives or are these images expressive of
the general human predicament?
– Santu Mofokeng, “The Black Photo Album”
Santu Mofokeng’s exhibition “Chasing Shadows” curated by Corinne Diserens currently on view at Bergen Kunsthall, Norway, is both an intellectually engaging and aesthetically challenging statement of the importance of art.
Although being a highly revered documentary photographer and viewed as one of the leading photographic artists from the African Continent, this is the first retrospective exhibition of Santu Mofokeng’s work in Europe. “Chasing Shadows” includes the most important of Mofokeng’s bodies of work and is a unique opportunity to view its political and aesthetic development up close.
The exhibition spans more than thirty years of constant photographic and intellectual effort to give visibility to sides of the “human predicament” that tend to get lost when history is written through representations of political struggle. In a totalitarian regime like South Africa under apartheid, everything is politicised to a degree where even the most mundane task is informed by repression and struggle. Santu Mofokeng was among the artists and intellectuals who, during the 1980s, reformed anti-apartheid art, inspired by South African intellectual Njabulo Ndebele. In his essay “The Rediscovery of the Ordinary”,1 Ndebele criticised anti-apartheid art for reproducing the ruling regime’s ideology of violence and repression rather than giving visibility to the everyday experiences of the black population. Only by showing a nuanced image of the people can the relation between politics and aesthetics be reinvented, and thus the oppressive ideology of the ruling class subverted. By abandoning the depiction of political struggle and violence, Mofokeng’s art becomes political.
In his 1986 photographic essay “Train Church”, Mofokeng depicts how a tiresome and sometimes dangerous part of everyday life for black South Africans is transformed by the spiritual appropriation of a spatial and temporal lacuna in the ever-present oppressive apartheid regime. Large parts of the black population of Soweto would, often involuntary, spend hours commuting everyday to work. Carriages on these commuter trains would regularly and spontaneously be transformed into moving churches. Mofokeng’s images show the cramped space and the crowd, strangers to each other, joined in an ecstatic, self-organised community that transforms the journey into a pilgrimage, not to a sacred site but as an end in itself.
The impulse to transform the everyday into expressions of extraordinary political statements starts in “Train Church” and runs through Mofokeng’s oeuvre, whether he photographs the life in the Soweto Townships, tenant farmers in the rural town of Bloemhof, or households headed by children as a result of the AIDS epidemic. Perhaps the most conceptually formulated political-aesthetic statement is “The Black Photo Album/Look at Me: 1890–1950” (1997) in which he researched photographs from family collections to trace the people and the stories behind them. The stories and the photographs form the basis of a poetic investigation into the question of mental colonisation and photography as a potentially repressive medium of representation. Mofokeng’s approach to photography is as critically engaged as it is aesthetically refined; as much as he is an intellectual, his cerebral efforts are always inherently informed by his aesthetic sensibility.
It is the dialectical tension between the aesthetic qualities of the images and the political significance of engaging with life in all its forms that define Mofokeng’s particular brand of documentary photography. Watching his photographic essays, even from across a geographical, cultural, and political void, it seems that Mofokeng’s work responds to the imperative of Njabulo Ndebele to create the extraordinary out of the ordinary.
1 Njabulo Ndebele, Rediscovery of the Ordinary: Essays on South African Literature and Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), p. 53.