Santu Mofokeng

Post originally written for AADAT.

“Home is an appropriated space. It does not exist objectively in reality. The notion of ‘home’ is a fiction we create out of a need to belong. Home is a place where most people have never been to and never will arrive at.”


Born in Soweto in 1956, Santu Mofokeng has become one of South Africa’s most prolific and celebrated photographers. Mofokeng casts an inquisitive eye on the country under Apartheid and the years afterward, highlighting a range of topics ranging from life in townships to what he calls ‘existential madness — the absurdities of living’. For me, the true beauty of Mofokeng’s images lies in the strength of his storytelling ability: his photographs are often simple and subtle, yet seem to ask the viewer to look beyond. He wants you to look again. Look closer.


One of Mofokeng’s most striking photo-essays, ‘Chasing Shadows’, tackles the subject of spirituality and existence with images of affiliates of the Zionist Apostolic Faith and their place of worship at the Motouleng caves. Throughout the essay, he appears to analyse the importance of spirituality in all forms while questioning ideas of ownership and belonging.


Mofokeng worked with the African Studies Institute for nearly 10 years as a photographic researcher; a job that allowed him to observe his home nation with an almost-scientific approach. The series ‘Township Billboards’ looks at consumerism in townships with images of state-sponsored advertisements that are at complete odds with the environment they are placed in. He states, “I read somewhere that ads create a sense of participating in the utopia of beauty: life as it should be.” We ourselves are forced to look at our own environment – are we being bombarded with the subliminal yet unnecessary everyday? What do we truly need?


From the outset, one gets the feeling his images were in part created in reaction to the reductionist images coming out of Apartheid South Africa by foreign photojournalists – the narrative of ‘telling one’s own story’ has never seemed so apparent. Keen to avoid making victims of his subjects, Mofokeng manages to do the complete opposite in light of often difficult circumstances. From tackling the emotionally loaded subject of children who have become caregivers due to HIV/AIDs (‘Child-Headed Households’) to broaching the issue of black farm labourers on white-owned farms (‘Rumours: The Bloemhof Portfolio’), Mofokeng tackles the difficult balance between representation and objectivity with sensitivity.


Described as one of the most important photographers of his generation, Santu Mofokeng’s extensive body of work grants us a personal, considered look at South Africa’s past, and as an audience, allows us to question just what the future may hold. “[The future] is a foil, a blank canvas on which people can project their own imaginings.”


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