Thursday, December 3, 2015

Through the lens of Santu Mofokeng #photography

Santu Mofokeng’s series of photographs of black South Africans, Black Photo Album: Look at Me: 1890-1950 (1997) should be viewed within context in its role as the consolidation of an archive. As Mofokeng states: “These are images that urban black working- and middle-class families had commissioned, requested, or tacitly sanctioned. They are left behind by dead relatives, where they sometimes hang on obscure parlor walls in the townships. In some families they are coveted as treasures, displacing totems in discursive narratives about identity, lineage, and personality” (Cargo Collective). These images are drawn from a period which gave rise to apartheid and the disenfranchisement of black people in the country, as well as an erasure of their identity beyond the official, state-sanctioned information (Furstenberg 2002:60).

The images themselves are clearly posed, themselves creating an illusion through their careful poise and attention to detail, down to the choice in clothing and props selected, as expression of the subjects’ whims and, as Mofokeng states: “We see these images in the terms determined by the subjects themselves, for they have made them their own. They belong and circulate in the domain of the private. That is the position they occupied in the realm of the visual in the nineteenth century. It was never their intention to be hung in galleries as works of art” (Cargo Collective).

The people depicted in the photographs are ordinary, everyday people whose stories would have otherwise gone untold had the images not been preserved. The importance of these images is also worthwhile bearing into consideration, for as Mofokeng says, “Officially, black people were frequently depicted in the same visual language as the flora and fauna, represented as if in their natural habitat for the collector of natural history” (Cargo Collective). Compare these to photographs taken by William Roe (of which a selection is housed at the Graaff-Reinet Museum, Graaff-Reinet), and it becomes apparent that Mofokeng’s work fills a large gap in the photographic record that depicts black Africans in a similar fashion – snapshots of people’s lives that exist as a sort of time capsule that remembers where official history-makers of the time were apt to erase.

Something else that one must consider, specifically within the context of the time that this work was put together (1997) that a large body of the photography documenting black lives would have focused on events such as the violence in the townships. To bring out a body of work such as this, Mofokeng is showing a very different side to the public compared to what would, at the time, have been presented in the public eye, as stated by Furstenberg (2002:61): “Mofokeng positions his practice as an alternative to the collectivizing and dehumanizing operations of the archive and to the totalizing notions of identity constructed by the concepts of ‘Soweto’ and ‘townships’”.

The images themselves therefore offer viewers a degree of visual ambiguity precisely because they are taken out of context of the homes in which they initially hung. Their meaning, collected, changes, becoming rather a narrative discourse about a population segment, rather than purely portraits of family. Together, they establish a collective identity for those who were historically disenfranchised and disempowered due to apartheid. The images stand together to preserve memories that would have otherwise been swept under the rug or otherwise ignored, and also speak of a people who have made the trappings of European culture their own. By not being overtly political these images regrouped during recent years nonetheless communicate the effects of an oppressive regime without resorting to blatant imagery. Look at Me does exactly what the title suggests, offering the viewer the command to look, and not deny the past, and to remember and not be swept under the carpet.

Furstenberg, L. 2002. Representing the Body Archivally in South African Photography. Art Journal 61(1), Spring:58-67.

Santu Mofokeng. Cargo Collective. September 12, 2015. <>

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