South African photojournalist Santu Mofokeng has died. The award-winning Soweto-born photographer was born in 1956 and died after a long illness.
The South African National Editors’ Forum called him an unsung hero, a man who was not well-known inside his home country for much of his career but was internationally acclaimed and held in high regard mainly in Europe and in the US. It sent its condolences to the family and friends of Mofokeng, saying he would be sorely missed.
Reuters, reporting on the death of Mofokeng, said he “developed a knack, much like his mentor David Goldblatt, for capturing the emotional and psychological qualities of his subjects, a feature often absent in photographs of the time focused on political violence”.
Veteran photojournalist and former SABC CEO, Jimi Matthews, agreed. In a statement issued by SANEF, he said: “He offered us a different photographic view of South Africa. Different from the famous ‘struggle’ images that emerged in the eighties and onwards.
“He was less interested in the ‘Bang Bang’ genre of photography that depicted the horror of South Africa. His was a more humanistic view of life, a person subjected to the indignities of living under apartheid,” Matthews said.
Talking about billboards, in his statement from a 2004 exhibition shown in Berlin,Vienna and Johannesburg, he said: “Billboards have been the medium of communication between the rulers and the denizens of townships since the beginning. The billboard is a fact and feature of township landscape. It is a relic from the times when Africans were subjects of power and the township was a restricted area, subject to laws, municipality by laws and ordinances regulating people’s movements and governing who may or may not enter the township.
“It is without irony when I say that billboards can be used as reference points when plotting the history and development of the township. Billboards capture and encapsulate ideology, the social, economic and political climate at any given time. They retain their appeal for social engineering…At the high speed of a minibus taxi, the billboards roll by like flipping pages in a book. The retina registers arcane and inane messages about sex and cell-phones, mostly sex and cell-phones. Perhaps this is a coincidence. I wonder.”
Mofokeng was a member of the well-know Afripix collective in South Africa, established in 1982, which was an agency of amateur and professional photographers who opposed Apartheid in South Africa and documented South Africa in the 1980s. He worked under the alias ‘Mofokengâ’. Afripix included renowned photographers such as Omar Badsha, Steve Hilton-Barber, Herbert Mabuza, Zubeida Vallie, Paul Weinberg, Humphrey Phakade ‘Pax’ Magwaza, Kentridge Matabatha, Rafique Mayet, and Mxolise Mayo. It was dissolved in 1991.
Mofokeng held several solo exhibitions in various galleries in South Africa and around the world including the Market Gallery in Johannesburg, Netherlands Photo Institute in Rotterdam; the FNAC Montparnasse in Paris, France; the Transparency International in Berlin, Germany; the Memling Museum, Bruges in Belgium as well as David Krut Projects in New York City.
In 2011, the Jeu de Paume in Paris mounted a Mofokeng retrospective and book. ‘Santu Mofokeng, Chasing Shadows – 30 years of photographic essays’. It included over 200 images (photographs and a slideshow), texts and documents. “The photographic essays he composed over the years, some of which are a life-long work in progress, range from the Soweto of his youth, from his investigations of life on the farms, the everyday life of the township and in particular, representations of the self and family histories of black South Africans, to images from the artist’s ongoing exploration of religious rituals and of typologies of landscapes, including his most current project Radiant Landscapes, commissioned specially for this retrospective,” Jeu de Paume wrote.
Matthews said, “We were blessed that he shared his humane vision of the world around him with us. May his soul rest in eternal peace”.
Mofokeng was a multi-award-winning photographer and fellowships the list below speaks volume of the level of recognition and respect he earned in his lifetime.
- 1991: Ernest Cole Scholarship, for study at the International Center of Photography, in New York City
- 1992: 1st Mother Jones Award for Africa
- 1998: Künstlerhaus Worpswede Fellowship, Germany
- 1999: Contre Jour Residency, Marseille
- 1999: DAAD Fellowship, Worpswede, Germany
- 2001: DAAD Fellowship, Worpswede, Germany
- 2007: Ruth First Fellowship
- 2009: Prince Claus Award, Netherlands
- 2016: International Photography Prize, Fondazione Fotografia Modena – Sky Arte, Italy.
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