Chasing Shadows. Santu Mofokeng
Extra City Kunsthal Antwerp, May 4th - July 29th 2012
Review by Pieter Vermeulen
Currently on view in the Antwerp-based Kunsthalle Extra City is a large-scale retrospective of South-African artist Santu Mofokeng. Made In co-production with Jeu De Paume Paris, Kunsthalle Bern and Bergen Kunsthall, the last but one stop of this itinerant exhibition certainly doesn’t lack international appeal.
After some years of working as a photojournalist, Mofokeng (° 1956) started to gain recognition in the ‘80s with his sociopolitically engaged photographs documenting daily life during the apartheid regime. His work was increasingly shown in institutions abroad, from photo galleries to museums and Kunsthalle. His most decisive entry into the mainstream contemporary art world came with his participation in Documenta 11 (2002) and the 52nd Venice Biennale (2007). In 2009, he received the prestigious Prince Claus Award.
Mofokeng’s artistic merit is subtle, ambivalent and less easy to articulate. ‘Chasing Shadows’ is not only the title of a series of photographs (1996-2006) about the obscure ritual and spiritual practices taking place in South-African caves, but also the way Mofokeng likes to circumscribe his own activity as an artist: “Perhaps I was looking for something that refuses to be photographed. I was only chasing shadows, perhaps”. The tonality of this message clearly resonates with the etymological meaning of the photographical ‘essay’, i.e. a mere ‘attempt’ to capture a story into different photographs. The personal and artistic struggle with his photographic subjects is very legible in the whole of his research, and is often thematized as such: “One danger with documentary photography, especially victim photography, is that it may create its victims as much as it finds them,” quoting prof. Solomon-Godeau. Strikingly, Mofokeng hardly depicts any victims as such, his subjects are portrayed as proud and dignified human beings, often despite the inhuman and repressive conditions they are living in. At the other end, he confronts the viewer with a series composed of vast, anonymous and deceptively appealing landscapes, where the horrors of history are literally lurking just below the surface.
And this is precisely what Mofokeng is getting at: delicately revealing himself as an accomplice to his photographical testimony, thus involving us, spectators or witnesses, in a similar dédoublement of our gaze. To experience Mofokeng’s work, one must look at what remains invisible in the image itself, at what is looming in its own shadow, so to speak, in the absence of the very essence of photography: light. This reverse side of the image is elaborated in his beautiful, sophisticated texts. In fact, Mofokeng is as much a writer as he is a photographer. In his oeuvre, text and image are two sides of the same coin.
Chasing shadows is unlike fighting windmills, it is a way of pursuing the traces of the past left in our human landscapes - mental, corporeal and geographical. It is a silent plea for the everlasting need to remember. Mofokeng’s photo essays form a comment on Adorno’s adage that, after Auschwitz, it has become impossible to write poems (or make art, for that matter) without falling into barbarism. In his turn, Mofokeng’s position might be really close to Paul Celan’s own response: “Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, ‘enriched’ by it all”.