Remembering Santu Mofokeng

Acclaimed South African artist, Santu Mofokeng, passed away last Sunday, leaving behind a rich photographic legacy.

June 16 Commemoration, Regina Mundi, Soweto, 1986

June 16 Commemoration, Regina Mundi, Soweto, 1986

Born in 1956, Santu Mofokeng grew up in Orlando East in Johannesburg, and was a learner at Morris Isaacson High School during the infamous 1976 Soweto Uprising. The initial plans for the protest were for students from Naledi High School and Morris Isaacson to meet up, and walk together to Orlando Stadium. Sadly though the proposed march was never completed, with violence erupting soon after the protesters began to gather. By the end of the day hundreds of children had died at the hands of the South African police.

Mofokeng had already started his career as a street photographer when the riots took place, but lost his camera in the chaos. It was a few years before he was able to replace his camera and start taking photos again, but the events of the 16th June brought home to Mofokeng the importance of photography in documenting events, and the power of photographs as a political tool.

'Democracy is forever', 2004

‘Democracy is forever’, 2004

In 1985 Mofokeng  joined the anti-apartheid photographic collective, Afrapix, going to work for the black-owned New Nation newspaper in 1987. A year later he began work at Wits University’s African Studies Institute. Mofokeng  had become increasingly critical of mainstream photojournalism, and of the way in which black South Africans were represented in the bigger international picture. As part of the university’s Oral History Project, Mofokeng produced images that represented the lives of ordinary people as they went about their daily lives.

Speaking in a recent interview, Omar Badsha, one of the founders of Afrapix, spoke of the motivation behind Mofokeng’s work:

…he began to think through, like some of us, the issue of representation. How to represent people, breaking all the stereotypes that existed right up to that period, and began to look at people not only as part of the broader struggle, but people in the everyday. People with rituals, people with lives and lovers and children, and people struggling against poverty, against oppression. So he began to look at life in South Africa from another perspective, and in that process, he and others within his circle, changed the way South Africa was viewed, and black South Africa was viewed”

In keeping with this line of thinking Mofokeng collated the book, The Black Photo Album / Look at Me. Consisting of a collection of portrait photographs of urban black South African working and middle-class families, taken between 1890 and 1950, the images show a very different view of black South Africans, to that typically promoted.

In this work Mofokeng analyses the sensibilities, aspirations and self-image of the black population and its desire for representation and social recognition in times of colonial rule and suppression” www.artbook.com

Unusually, in addition to being a photographer, Mofokeng was also an author and a poet, often providing a narrative for the photographs he took. It is this unusual approach to photography that the Market Photo Workshop wants to encourage and explore when working with recipients of the Santu Mofokeng Fellowship, which the school established last year. “The Fellowship is an opportunity to continue Santu Mofokeng’s love, respect and contribution to the practice of photography in Africa and the world”, said Lekgetho Makola, head of the Market Photo Workshop.

Sadly, in addition to being a talented artist, it seems Mofokeng was also a prophesier. In a 2007 interview Mofokeng said he believed that he was living on borrowed time. His father had died at the age of 44, and he had a family history of short lifetimes. He was worried about all the visions he still wanted to see realised, but looking at his immense body of work, he needn’t have been concerned about running out of time. In his 63 years Santu Mofokeng contributed more to society than most people can even dream of. 

Images courtesy of www.iol.co.za, aperture.org and www.researchgate.net

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