Since the mid-1990s Santu Mofokeng’s different photo essays and projects have travelled all over the world but never in as comprehensive a form as Chasing Shadows: Thirty Years of Photographic Essays, a retrospective of three decades of work that is currently on view at the Wits Art Museum.
The expansive and encompassing form of this exhibition is in part due to meticulous research done by the curator, Corinne Diserens. Well known for her excellent international retrospective on David Goldblatt, Diserens spent years combing through Mofokeng’s negatives and the associated archive to produce the most comprehensive reading of the photographer’s work to date.
Curatorially, Chasing Shadows carefully crafts Mofokeng’s multiple photographic interests and different periods of productivity into a properly constituted oeuvre.
In particular Diserens creates a complex rhythm out of the photo-grapher’s emerging interest in the landscape form and his subsequent and rich returns to this genre. If anyone doubted Mofokeng’s status as a hugely significant South African photographer, this exhibition single-handedly dispels those misgivings.
The exhibition originally opened at Jeu de Paume in Paris in May last year before travelling to venues in Switzerland, Norway and Belgium. The Wits Art Museum, in hosting the fifth iteration of Chasing Shadows, is thankfully showcasing an exhibition befitting its wider role as a university research museum, after launching the museum in May with a soft exhibition and unfolding an otherwise circumspect programme to date.
However, in locating Chasing Shadows in the third and least impressive space in the museum (downstairs, in the basement, with rough finishes and relatively poor lighting), and given the significance of this particular exhibition, it is difficult not to read this placement as a relegation of Mofokeng, the photographic medium and/or the retrospective form.
A further concern is that the original Parisian exhibition has been edited down to fit into a basement space, depriving us of the fuller exhibition experience. Works even overflow into a warren on the way down to the basement, where Mofokeng’s Black Photo Album, still one of the defining and definitive moments in post-apartheid archival engagement, is left hidden away. There are also works outside the museum itself, in the coffee shop area. Not good.
Even with these contractions and spillage Chasing Shadows just looks too squeezed, with not enough white wall between each of the sublime silver gelatin handprints. No matter what anniversary pressures the university might be bringing to bear on the museum, either the programme should have been cleared properly to showcase a photographer regarded as one of the most important and influential African practitioners today, or the show should have been scheduled for a later date.
What the exhibition itself confirms in unfolding Mofokeng’s practice it denies in the absence of the curatorial hand and voice. Although it can be contended that these forms of apparently benign curatorship are appropriate in extolling the artist’s output, it can equally be argued in this particular instance that, because so much of Chasing Shadows is based on Diserens’ impressive archival research and interpretation of a photographer’s practice, the curatorial voice should be more visible, on the edges at least, if not in selected pauses during the show itself.
The only intimation of this curatorial research is the two display cases containing invitations to Mofokeng’s previous exhibitions, which collected here testify to and accumulate something of his exhibition history (but don’t really attest to the value of these histories as an emerging and important form of meaning making).
There are copies of Mofokeng’s essays in Leadership magazine that under the creative direction of David Goldblatt provided one of the most important South African forums for photo essays in, especially, the 1980s.
There is also a copy of the influential anti-apartheid volume From South Africa: New Writings, Photographs, and Art (1988), opened to a page with Mofokeng’s Train Church (1986), the photographer’s first-ever photo essay. There are also examples of the use of his work to illustrate academic research on human and social development.
It is in this last example that Diserens misses some of the value of such documents in connecting photography, circulation and meaning. Not enough is made of Mofokeng’s nearly 10 years of working as a photographic researcher at the Wits Institute for Advanced Social Research, then under the leadership of Professor Charles van Onselen.
Mofokeng was, intentionally or not, at the centre of one of the earliest South African examples of enabling photography as a research practice.
As an act of biographical interpretation, surely it is the role of the retrospective to understand the intellectual frame of such a period and offer it as a lens through which to contextualise the photographer’s work at that time.
The material in these display cases is one of the foundations of not only how this exhibition was made but also how exhibitions can make sense of a medium. The cases, like the exhibition itself, are bound up in a relationship between archival ephemera and the ephemeral archive, between, on the one hand, the fragmented bits and pieces that come to be the impetus and basis of making meaning and, on the other hand, the fragile and immaterial archive that gets constituted by the accumulation and collation of such meanings.
Chasing Shadows: Thirty Years of Photographic Esssays is on at the Wits Art Museum until October 14.
Rory Bester is the co-curator of Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life, currently on view at the International Center of Photography in New York “A history of violence and elusive hope”, Page 12