Santu Mofokeng had 25 solo exhibitions across the globe between 1990 and 2016.
Santu Mofokeng had 25 solo exhibitions across the globe between 1990 and 2016.

Santu Mofokeng, the photojournalist who made ordinary things extraordinary

By Mpiletso Motumi Time of article published Jan 29, 2020

Share this article:

Condolences continue to pour in for legendary photographer Santu Mofokeng. The iconic photojournalist died at the weekend surrounded by his family in Soweto.

He was 63.

Mofokeng was born in 1956 and began his career in Soweto as a street photographer while still a teenager.

He eventually went on to work as a news photographer and joined the collective Afrapix with fellow photographer and friend Paul Weinberg. Afrapix Collection, a documentary photography collective archived the works of photographers who were documenting society in the 1980s.

Many of his initial photos were of the Struggle against apartheid. Some of his most famous works included Train Churches and Chasing Shadows. Mofokeng was known to "be able to rearrange conventional subjection in a photographic presentation with a spiritual dimension".

Colleagues and notable members of the arts community have been sending their condolences and tributes on social media.

Mofokeng won several awards and was awarded fellowships for his work, including the Ernest Cole Scholarship in 1991 which allowed him to study at the International Center of Photography School in New York City, the Ruth First Fellowship, the DAAD Fellowship, twice, and the Prince Claus Award in 2009.

In 2016, the University of the Witwatersrand honoured him with an honorary doctorate.

Mofokeng also taught photography at the Market Photo Workshop. Last year, the workshop started a fellowship in his name.

“You can’t box his work into a description,” said Candice Jansen, manager of research and exhibition at the workshop.

“I think that is what made him an important photographer, he was able to take quite ordinary things and make them extraordinary, make us see them in a way we hadn’t seen them before; you can’t really describe that.

“He was rooted in photojournalism and documentary so he was looking at the reality of things that are really important to the world. He was not photographing things that don’t exist, he was seeing through the visible - beyond what the eyes can see and what our other senses can feel.”

Jansen said the fellowship was important to have because Mofokeng was more than a photographer.

“He was a writer, a researcher, he used photography beyond illustration. The way he worked, how he thought, where he went to look for stories, who he was as an African, those things are part of what we call his practise. We are thinking about Santu as a holistic being, as an archive in and of itself and we want to use how he worked as a method, how we can use it.”

The prolific artist had 25 one-person shows between 1990 and 2016 and exhibited on numerous group shows across the world, including Documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany, and the 25th Sao Paulo Biennial, Brazil, in 2002, and the Venice Biennial in 2007 and 2013.

The first fellow of the Santu Mofokeng Fellowship is Gabi Ngcobo, an international curator who curated for the Berlin Biennial in 2018.

Jansen said the fellowship would be using Mofokeng as an inspiration.

“His work is the foundation from which we are growing a practice around photography that is trying to think beyond what the images show us but also how the images are made and who is making the images, where are the images and the afterlife of images, so it is much bigger than just looking at the pictures that were made.”

The fellowship will run for the next two years.

Art critic Sandile Ngidi tweeted: "South African documentary photography has lost one of its brightest stars. Santu Mofokeng belonged to a committed generation of photographers that gained prominence in the 'alternative media' in the 1980s and 1990s. This series is on 'train churches'. Salutes!"

Nelisa Ngqulana said: "#SantuMofokeng's one of the very few black artists I got to learn about as a young art student in the early 1990s. Forever grateful for his work. For teaching us representation through his lens."

The Aperture Foundation said: "We are deeply saddened by the passing of South African photographer Santu Mofokeng, whose work we recently published in the Spirituality issue of Aperture.

Share this article: