Early in the morning, a woman on a train between Johannesburg and Soweto stifles a yawn with a clenched fist. Her eyes crinkle as she stretches her cheeks, a bright light streaming in from behind her. It warms the heavy knitwear that envelops her bowed shoulders, illuminating the profiles of her fellow-passengers. Nearby, similar columns of sunshine frame the boisterous clapping of women in song—a long commute swiftly transformed into a site of worship.
These images, by the South African photographer Santu Mofokeng, ostensibly depict scenes of segregated transport during apartheid. Yet in their composition they evoke something more: the rhythms and textures of everyday life. Taken from within and among a crowd of commuters, the pictures seem to sway with the velocity of the train carriage. Shards of light blur the edges of figures, interplaying with shifting shadows as passengers move in unison. Titled “Train Church2020欧洲杯体育投注网,” Mofokeng’s series was made during a few weeks in 1986, and in South Africa it became veritably synonymous with his name. Mofokeng, who died in January, at the age of sixty-three, was a photographer whose body of work—both images and text—waded through themes of history and land, memory and spirituality, and helped shape the course of South African photography.
“Train Church” serves as the first chapter in an expansive recent compilation of Mofokeng’s work, titled “Stories” (Steidl, 2019), which consists of twenty-one large-format booklets that cover three decades of the photographer’s career. An inventive, astute survey, “Stories” acknowledges that Mofokeng was a documentarian who resisted easy categorization, creating an œuvre that tackled monumental topics while retaining a sense of fluidity and poetry.
2020欧洲杯体育投注网Mofokeng’s first professional encounter with photography was not as a cameraman but as a subject. In 1964, when he was eight years old, his mother, a garment worker, had him photographed with his younger brother, to model jackets she had designed and sewn for them using leftover material from the factory that employed her. Mofokeng admitted that envy was one of the motivators that steered him into the photography business: in his home town, Soweto, cameras were considered the “preserve of specialists”—journalists or government workers, the wealthy or educated. Mofokeng became determined to penetrate this seemingly exclusive sector. At the age of seventeen, he began taking portraits on the streets of his neighborhood.
Though his early work was focussed mainly on family gatherings—weddings, birthday celebrations—Mofokeng looked to the work of black South African photojournalists such as Peter Magubane and Alf Khumalo for inspiration. In the early nineteen-eighties, he became a darkroom assistant for the Afrikaaner paper Beeld; several years later, he joined the likes of Paul Weinberg, Omar Badsha, Cedric Nunn, and Guy Tillim in the social-documentary photo collective Afrapix, which was formed, in 1981, to document South African political life in the face of state censorship under apartheid. “Afrapix gave me a home. It provided me with money to buy a camera and film in order to document Soweto and the rising discontent in the townships,” Mofokeng , in an essay called “Trajectory of a Street Photographer.” But he noted that his sensibility was less strictly journalistic than that of many of his colleagues: “I was less interested in ‘unrest’ than in ordinary township life.”
From 1988 through 1994, Mofokeng immersed himself in one township in particular—Bloemhof, located on the banks of South Africa’s Vaal River, in southwestern Transvaal—where his work exposed the struggles and joys of life among black South African tenant laborers. In Bloemhof, Mofokeng came to know the Maine family, who served as generous hosts and long-term photographic subjects. An especially stirring chapter of “Stories” portrays the burial of the matriarch, Mariam Maine, where Mofokeng captured a sprawling procession of grieving community members against the arid rural landscape. Like much of Mofokeng’s subsequent work—such as “Child-Headed Households,” which carefully chronicled the everyday experiences of families fractured by the AIDS2020欧洲杯体育投注网 epidemic—the Bloemhof series posed an implicit political argument, advocating for the inner lives of black South Africans as worthy of photographic attention.
Mofokeng experimented with formal techniques uncommon to the documentary genre; he revelled in the opacity of smoke, mist, dust, and other diaphanous materials that occlude rather than expose forms. These aesthetic decisions cast an unusual pall over his pictures, whether he was documenting sites of spiritual expression or the engulfing vegetative sprawl of Robben Island—the haunting site of much of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment.
Mofokeng once protested that “books domesticate meaning,” but he was deeply invested in the literary form. (His mother, he said, “instilled in me a religious thing about always searching for meaning and purpose in everything we do. This informs my enterprise and the work that I do—I’d like to be the interpreter of my work.”) For a decade, beginning in 1988, he worked as a photographer and researcher at the institute for Advanced Social Research at the University of Witwatersrand, where he developed a sober, precise narrative voice. He would pen essays often, which he interspersed with the photographic works he published. For instance, for his project “Black Photo Album/Look at Me,” which débuted at the seminal 1997 Johannesburg Biennale, he compiled and retouched studio portraits of middle-class black sitters from 1890 to 1950. A South African historian wrote that Mofokeng’s inventory resisted “the pervasive and ongoing circulation of images of blacks as exotic and wonderful species, arrested in an earlier time frame.”
Throughout Mofokeng’s body of work is a sustained and ambivalent engagement with spirituality. Between 1996 and 2014, he made a series of journeys to photograph the sacred Motouleng and Mautse caves near Clarens, in Free State. When processing those images, which became a series entitled “Chasing Shadows,” Mofokeng would often use exhausted chemicals to give his photographs an ethereal edge. For him, the darkroom became a space where he could attempt to create a photographic version of a medium, an encounter with the transcendental re-inscribed through the visual. These images, like so much of Mofokeng’s work, remain both wise and indeterminate, stirring in their mutability and grace.