This large black and white photograph is from Santu Mofokeng’s series Climate Change 2007, a series that forms part of the broader investigation into the landscape that he began in 1997. Tate has three works from Climate Change in its collection: Dust Storms at Noon on the R34 Between Welkom and Hennenman, Free State I; Undersized, Stunted-in-Growth and Rotting Melons Dumped in the Veld Outside Kroonstad, Free State 2007 (Tate X66381); and Replacing of Sand Washed away During the Floods and Wave Action, South Beach, Durban 2007 (Tate X66382). Shot in the artist’s native South Africa, each image focuses on different physical manifestations of climate change. From the grains of sand raining from the sky in this particular image, to stunted rotten fruits that lay strewn like cannonballs on a battleground and sites of coastal erosion, Mofokeng has talked about how these scenes represent the frightening unpredictability of nature: ‘I’m saying: this is what we’re all afraid of.’ (Santu Mofokeng, ‘Chasing Shadows, 30 Years of Photographic Essays’, video interview, jeudepaume.org/index.php?page=article&idArt=1708, accessed 10 December 2016.) The photographs in Climate Change were taken in 2007 and printed in 2011 in editions of five plus two artist’s proofs; Tate’s copy of Dust Storms at Noon on the R34 Between Welkom and Hennenman, Free State I is number three in the main edition.
Mofokeng was born in Soweto, Johannesburg. He began photographing as a teenager, first taking pictures of those closest to him, then taking commissions to document local events and ceremonies. Between 1981 and 1984 he was employed as a newspaper photographer before working for a short time as a photographic assistant in advertising. In 1985 he joined Afrapix, the photographers’ collective and agency founded in 1982 that became the leading proponent of so-called ‘struggle photography’ in South Africa. For Mofokeng, this group – which grew to some forty members – was about ‘taking sides, about photography as activism’ (Santu Mofokeng, in Conversation with Corrine Diserens, in Diserens 2011, p.9). Their activities were more than simply chronicling events: they offered a rigorous critique of documentary practices in a divided country. Although many of the photographs Mofokeng shot during his time with Afrapix were published in newspapers, he has recounted how unsuited he was to the deadline-oriented life of a photojournalist; in part because of his preference for a slower way of working, but also for the practical reason that he did not own a car. While his colleagues competed for space in the darkroom during the day, he took to processing his photographs at night. Working without interruption, he began to think about stories, rather than pressing events: ‘in book terms, not necessarily in newspaper terms’ (ibid, p.11).
This method of working coincided with his appointment at the African Studies Institute at The University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, which, he has said, ‘afforded me the space to think about what was not in the news’ (ibid., p.12). Beginning with the series Train Church 1986–8, the photo-essay became the main form in which Mofokeng presented his photographs. It enabled him to capture stories that slipped between the binaries ‘of oppression and repression’ repeated in the media: ‘the only way I could show both the good and the bad was in an essay. It allowed for – not balance – but complexity.’ (Ibid., p.16.) Discussing the importance of the photo-essay for his art, he has credited the influence of Life photographer W. Eugene Smith (1918–1978), who came to prominence in the 1950s for his work in this mode. While Mofokeng has remained faithful to this format throughout his career, two events in the early 1990s prompted him to reassess the manner in which he approached his subject matter. The first was a comment left in the guestbook at his exhibition Like Shifting Sand at the Market Galleries, Johannesburg in 1990, which accused him of ‘making money from blacks’. The second was his attendance at the International Center of Photography, New York in 1991 as recipient of the prestigious Ernest Cole Award. There, in workshops led by photographers Roy de Carava and Brian Weil, he was encouraged to reconsider the editorial nature of his work.
From this point on, Mofokeng developed a more research-led approach. He started to investigate the photographic archive, culminating in the slide projection The Black Photo Album/Look at Me 1997 (Tate T13173) and the series Distorting Mirror/Townships Imagined 1992. He also began to make series of photographs wherein images were linked by a conceptual framework, as opposed to offering a narrative about a specific moment in time or place. The politics of representation – more specifically, concerns about disparity between those depicted and those who attended his exhibitions – also became an important concern. With the end of apartheid in 1994, Mofokeng’s observed that ‘[its] demise has brought to the fore a crisis of spiritual insecurity for the many who believe in the spiritual dimensions of life’ (quoted in Diserens 2011, p.7). He became interested in the way in which periods of trauma in a country’s history manifest themselves in its landscape, and how this, in turn shapes national and personal identity. Photographing the landscape thus became a statement about reclaiming his own sense of self, but was also part of a more complex attempt to decode how our view of the landscape is based on a myriad of subjective factors from personal experience, myth and memory, to ideology, indoctrination, projection and prejudice (ibid., p.191). This has resulted in three loose and overlapping bodies of work: Landscape and Memory (examples of which are also in Tate’s collection; see Tate X66378 and X66379), Trauma Landscapes (also referred to as Sad Landscapes), both 1997–2011, and Climate Change 2007.
When Mofokeng initiated his landscape project in 1997, he focused only on sites in South Africa, reflecting that the new South Africa had ‘yet to take psychic ownership of the land it has inherited from its apartheid ancestors’ (ibid., p.7). His journey began with places invested in spiritual meaning in the Free State, including concentration camps and burial grounds in Middelburg, Greylingstad and Brandfort. It soon evolved geographically and conceptually to include sites of historic conflict and turmoil in Namibia, Europe and Asia, and then places that signified ecological and natural disasters resulting from climate change. For Mofokeng, the two themes are closely related. They each offer the opportunity to consider how humanity copes when trauma is wrought upon it, and its survival is threatened. ‘Today,’ he has written, ‘this consciousness of spiritual forces, which helped people cope with the burdens of apartheid, is being undermined by mutations in nature. If humanity was a scourge the new threat is a virus, invisible perils both.’ (Ibid., p.7.)
Patricia Hayes, ‘Santu Mofokeng, Photographs: “The Violence is in the Knowing”’, History and Theory, vol.48, December 2009, pp.34–51.
Corinne Diserens (ed.), Chasing Shadows: Santu Mofokeng Thirty Years of Photographic Essays, New York 2011.
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