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Santu Mofokeng at the Fifty-Fifth Venice Biennale in 2013. Photo: Barbara Zanon/Getty Images.

Santu Mofokeng (1956–2020)

South African photojournalist, photographer, photo essayist, and writer Santu Mofokeng—whose lyrical black-and-white pictures of sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and township laborers in the 1980s built a kind of unofficial archive of colonial South Africa, and whose postapartheid images captured the traumatic terrain of a society in shift while examining the entanglement of his chosen medium with the colonial project—has died at the age of sixty-three. In the last decade, he was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy that left him in a wheelchair and unable to speak.

Born in Soweto, a township near Johannesburg, Mofokeng was mentored by photographer David Goldblatt and worked as a darkroom technician for local newspapers before, in 1985, joining the documentary photo agency Afrapix, which documented the protest movements sweeping the nation in the last years of apartheid. In 1988, he began working as a research photographer at the Institute for Advanced Social Research at the University of Witwatersrand, capturing images of miner strikes, street protests, and police violence while researching segregated land ownership in the town of Bloemhof. His more recent work ventured beyond his home country while remaining close to his themes of social stratification and historical dislocation: His 1994 series “On the Tracks” chronicles New York City subway workers, and “Nightfall of the Spirit,” 2000, depicts former killing fields in Germany, Poland, Vietnam, South Africa, and elsewhere. In 2002, his work was featured in Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11, and 2013 saw his inclusion in both the Venice Biennale and Enwezor’s world-traveling “Rise & Fall of Apartheid” exhibition, first organized at Munich’s Haus der Kunst. Last year, Steidl published Santu Mofokeng: Stories, a twenty-one-volume anthology of nearly six hundred of his photographs, drawing from an archive of 32,000 frames.

In the October 1996 issue of Artforum, Max Kozloff wrote: “Santu Mofokeng evokes a desolation and ennui that would make many sensitive Americans feel right at home. But for him, as he said, his pictures are emotional testimony of a sadness the new democracy has a ‘desire to forget.’ He goes on: ‘The ‘us and them’ [whites] paradigm that informed my photography in the past has given way to an awkward ‘we,’ a fetus of doubtful pedigree.”

“Apartheid was a roof,” Mofokeng once wrote. “The demise of apartheid has brought to the fore a crisis of spiritual insecurity for the many who believe in the spiritual dimensions of life. Today, this consciousness of spiritual forces, which helped people cope with the burdens of apartheid, is being undermined by mutations in nature. If apartheid was a scourge the new threat is a virus; invisible perils both.”