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Remembering Santu Mofokeng Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

13 February 2020

South African photographer Santu Mofokeng, who documented black life under apartheid, died late last month at the age of 64. He had been ill for several years.

"Santu is a very great photographer and an artist who had developed a meticulousness and cultivated deliberateness in the exercise of his art," said Corinne Diserens, who curated a major exhibition devoted to Mofokeng at the Jeu de Paume in 2011.

Diserens, now the director of the Ecole Nationale d'Arts de Paris-Cergy, added, "A photographer and not a photojournalist, a photographer and not an artist," he took great care and time "to select and edit his negatives to compose his 'essays' or 'stories,' which he accompanied with short, very chiseled texts."

Mofokeng first made his name as a member of the Afrapix collective, then as a documentary photographer for the African Studies Institute at Wits University, and finally as an independent artist.

When he was a teen, he was given a camera by one of his sisters.

Born in 1956, Mofokeng grew up in and around Soweto. He grew up in poverty, spending his school years at the Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto, where an uprising in 1976 was violently suppressed.

When he was a teen, he was given a camera by one of his sisters. While still in his teens, he launched his career as a street photographer and went on to work as a darkroom assistant to David Goldblatt before becoming a news photographer.

In 1985, Mofokeng joined the Afrapix Collective that documented anti-apartheid resistance and social conditions in South Africa. Mofokeng became an increasingly important critic of mainstream photojournalism and of the ways black South Africans were represented in the bigger international picture economy during the political struggle against apartheid.

Two years later, in 1987 he moved to the New Nation newspaper. From 1988 to 1998 he worked as a documentary photographer and researcher for the African Studies Institute's Oral History Project at the University of the Witwatersrand. There he focused on photographing the people in their homes and other aspects of their daily life to go beyond the familiar images of oppression, violence and squalor to find a more complex reality.

His long-running Billboards series, which occupied him between 1991 and 2009, focused on advertisements and the people who live around them. The series Radical Landscapes from 2011 depicts placid images of the South African countryside in contrast to the environmental destruction of South Africa.

As a researcher at the African Studies Institute, Mofokeng went to Eastern Europe to photograph the concentration camps for one of his series. He also went to Japan in search of memorial sites and their survival in modern society.

Between 1989 and 2010, Mofokeng held over 20 solo exhibitions in addition to numerous group and collaborative exhibitions. He curated photography exhibitions in South Africa, France and Mali, as well. Between 1990 and 2009 he has received numerous awards and fellowships for photography including the Ernest Cole Scholarship to study at the International Centre for Photography in New York.

The Guardian has published a gallery of his images. And Steidl Books has a slide show of his book Santu Mofokeng: Stories. And Aperture published Sean O'Toole's recent interview with him in its Winter 2019 issue.

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