PRINT May/June 2020



Santu Mofokeng, Johannesburg, 2013. Photo: Steve Tanchel.

 Only those
Who have survived

The final anaesthetization;
Those who have enacted the final epilogue;
Only those
Have the prescient perception
Of the inner idea of life
And can partake of the spectral dance
—Richard Ntiru, “To the Living”
Mofokeng declares that shadow is the essential vehicle of all photographic work in general, and of his own in particular. Shadow: that is to say, by definition, the thing that cannot be seen. Namely, apart from the image, photography should be an instrument of revelation. The starting point of an ontological quest, though we don’t know where it will lead.
—Simon Njami, A Silent Solitude1

Disclaimer: This is not a eulogy. You can’t perform a eulogy for someone who lives. We don’t die: We transition and live on in the yonder.

Santu Mofokeng, Lake Once Filled with the Ashes of the Cremated, KZ2–Auschwitz, 1997, gelatin silver print. From the series “Landscapes of Trauma,” 1997–2004. © Santu Mofokeng Foundation/Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, Johannesburg.

THERE IS A CERTAIN PROFUNDITY—a profundity that can only be qualified and quantified as tautology—a deep profundity in Santu Mofokeng’s work, which thrusts the viewers, if they are willing to listen to the images carefully, into a space of timelessness. A timelessness that speaks of the elasticity of time beyond time, beyond geography. A deep time. Not in the geological, Huttonian sense of deep time, but as in time’s transience and transcendentality. A time beyond the temporality of the lived imagination. I have found myself in this time-space often when looking at and listening to Santu’s photographic series, particularly “Landscapes,” 1988–2010; “Poisoned Landscapes,” 2008; “Townships,” 1985–87; “Child-Headed Households,” 2007; “Train Church,” 1986; “Landscapes of Trauma,” 1997–2004; “Chasing Shadows,” 1996–2006; and “Ishmael,” 1984–2005.

I was last in contact with him a few months ago, as we prepared for the twelfth edition of Bamako Encounters Photography Biennial. After receiving his initial response of delight at being part of this project, my curatorial team and I learned that Santu’s health wouldn’t permit him to participate. I had invited him to show “The Black Photo Album/Look at Me: 1890–1950,” 1997, the crux of which is the politics of representation and memory, which in turn spoke to the biennial’s thematic scope, “Streams of Consciousness: A Concatenation of Dividuals.” Besides invoking the obvious reading of “streams of consciousness” as a tool for artistic expression—as an uncontrolled and uncontrollable flux of ideas making themselves manifest—I was interested in this concept as a possibility for the passing down or conveying of cultures, epistemologies, and consciousness across generations and geographies. And to me this is what Santu had been doing with his fastidious research on black South African family photographs previously relegated to the shadows of history.

Born in Soweto, South Africa, in 1956, Santu practiced his craft as a street photographer, photojournalist, and member of the photo collective Afrapix. At some point in his career, he worried that the images he was making for the press of his people in the townships did not reflect how they wanted to see themselves: as a people with dignity, pride, stature, class; as cultivated and respected. But these qualities could be seen in their family albums, dating back to the turn of the twentieth century—documents of people’s lives and of how they wanted their families to see them in both the present and the future. In Minky Schlesinger’s 1996 documentary of the artist, Santu said that the fact that some of the images he found in the family albums couldn’t talk to him meant that there was something wrong with his education—an education that had programmed him to see his kind in a distorted light. Santu searched for images of black families in museums, libraries, and other public institutions, but mostly he found only ethnographic depictions of black people. This omission, this erasure from the official history of South Africa, fueled his project: “A voice outside the frame explains why these pictures were not there,” he said. He thus became an investigator, tracing images, names, families, places, memories, and stories and piecing them together like a parts of puzzle. It is this practice, this urge, this responsibility to understand, collect, restore, and disseminate—which is to say, to de-erase a people’s collective consciousness—that I saw as indispensable to “Streams of Consciousness.” As Simon Njami writes, “Apart from talent, which alone would not be enough, there are two qualities that make a photographer: dignity and responsibility.”2 Santu and his work embody both.

Santu Mofokeng, Comrade Sister, White City Jabavu, ca. 1985, gelatin silver print. From the series “Townships,” 1985–87. © Santu Mofokeng Foundation/Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, Johannesburg.

Santu often talks of his photographs as metaphorical biographies. A look inside. A conversation with the self. An in-ploration. In a conversation with Corinne Diserens, Santu explains, “Photography is mostly about projections. You project yourself; you bring yourself; you respond to things according to your own background, knowledge, and history. Sometimes what you bring is your preconception.” I am deeply interested in this notion of introspection as projection, or as it intersects with projection. This is true for all of Santu’s work, but I think it is most evident in the series “Chasing Shadows.” In his essay of the same title,3 Santu mentions that in looking at his body of work, he noticed that he had, consciously or unconsciously, neglected how spirituality influences and frames his life, the way he acts and makes decisions within society, his choices and movements. He adds: “There are several reasons why it was ignored: ambivalence, embarrassment, fear for the political and other implications, or perhaps the deflection of my gaze.”4 This is the (post)colonial schizophrenic predicament faced by most Africans, caught in a choice between an imposed, deluded notion of modernity that is meant to be in opposition to their indigenous spiritualities and the compulsion to adopt and conform to colonial religious concepts. By taking images of people at prayer in caves or other spiritual sites—people performing invocations, trying to encounter their god(s), trying to come to terms with their own mortality in the face of being in the world—or by creating images that reveal the sheer sacredness of such spiritual sites, Santu delves deep into his own spirituality. In his own words: “I grew up on the threshing floor of faith. A faith that is both ritual and spiritual—a bizarre cocktail of beliefs that completely embraces pagan rituals as well as Christian beliefs. And while I feel reluctant to partake in this gossamer world, I can identify with it.”5

Everyone who knows and listens intently and with devotion to Santu’s work has their Mofokeng moment—where they get suctioned into that space of timelessness, of deep time, of the transcendentality of time. Mine is engaging with Lake Once Filled with the Ashes of the Cremated, KZ2—Auschwitz, 1997: There, it is a foggy day, or maybe it is the ashes of the dead rising. The photograph is cloaked with a shocking serenity. The shadows of the trees barely touch one another on land. In water, in that lake once engorged with the ashes of those cremated in the concentration camps, the reflections of the trees fade into that space of timelessness and oblivion.

Everyone who knows and listens intently and with devotion to Santu’s work has their Mofokeng moment—where they get suctioned into that space of timelessness, of deep time, of the transcendentality of time.

This image, too, is a product of Santu finding the intrinsic self within the extrinsic. He started this series at a time when South Africa was deliberating on what to do with Vlakplaas, the paramilitary arm of the apartheid government that captured and executed political activists and opponents, and Robben Island, the maximum-security prison where political activists were incarcerated by the apartheid regime, along with other landscapes in which terrible memories lie buried. Santu visited sites associated with horror and trauma throughout Europe and Asia. It was an effort to understand how his people would remember, tackle, and live with or beyond the trauma they had faced from the colonial era through apartheid. It was an effort to understand how national and communal identities are constructed with, by, through, or despite trauma. It was an effort to understand how people cope with trauma, how they grieve and how they institute policies and structures of remembrance. Although Lake Once Filled with the Ashes of the Cremated, KZ2—Auschwitz is devoid of humans and full of emptiness, one still can hear the screams of pain and the screeching sounds of despair. A huge part of the history of the twentieth century resides in this image. In these times of social distancing, and amid the rampant demises resulting from Covid-19, the void in this image resounds with ongoing history.

Santu Mofokeng, Mthunzi and Miesie Making Supplications to the Ancestors Inside the Motouleng Sanctum - Free State, 2008, gelatin silver print. From the series “Chasing Shadows,” 1996–2006. © Santu Mofokeng Foundation/Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, Johannesburg.

While writing about Santu’s work, I have been listening to albums by the South African big band Brotherhood of Breath. I don’t know what Santu listened to, but it is astonishing how some of his images resonate with the skittering atonality of Mongezi Feza’s horn and Johnny Dyani’s pounding bass, not to speak of the cathartic throbs, rattles, and rolls of Louis Moholo’s percussion and the insistence of Chris McGregor’s piano. It is striking how the music’s aura overlaps with Santu’s particular notion of shadow, seriti: “Shadow does not carry the same image or meaning as seriti or is’thunzi. The word in Sotho and Zulu is difficult to pin down to any single meaning. In everyday use, seriti or is’thunzi can mean anything from aura, presence, dignity, confidence, power, spirit, essence, status and or wellbeing.”6

These to me are all qualities Santu Mofokeng epitomizes. It is this seriti or is’thunzi that is, indeed, the essential vehicle, condition, and propeller for his work—something that cannot be contained in language. A vehicle that stays in motion even in the realm of those who have enacted the final epilogue, who have the prescient perception of the inner idea of life and partake in the spectral dance. 

 As his body of work continues to grow, it appears that he has made peace with the fact that he will remain a lone figure travelling from the depths of history and hurtling forward into the future of new photographs to come. 
—Okwui Enwezor, “Images of Radical Will: Santu Mofokeng’s Photographic Ambivalence”7


Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung is an independent curator, author, and biotechnologist. 



1. Simon Njami, “A Silent Solitude” in Santu Mofokeng: A Silent Solitude. Photographs 1982–2011, ed. Simon Njami. (Milan: Skira, 2016), 20.

2. Njami, “A Silent Solitude,” 14.

3. Santu Mofokeng, “Chasing Shadows” in Chasing Shadows: Santu Mofokeng. Thirty Years of Photographic Essays, ed. Corinne Diserens (Munich: Prestel, 2011), 108.

4. Mofokeng, “Chasing Shadows,” 108.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid. 

7. Okwui Enwezor, “Images of Radical Will. Santu Mofokeng’s Photographic Ambivalence” in Chasing Shadows: Santu Mofokeng: Thirty Years of Photographic Essays, ed. Corinne Diserens (Munich: Prestel, 2011), 44.