SANTU MOFOKENG | Billboards


OPENING:

Saturday, 28 Jan 2023, 4-6 pm

Introduction by Florian Ebner, Head of Photography Department, Centre Pompidou, Paris


Galerie Thomas Zander is pleased to present an exhibition of photographs by the South African artist Santu Mofokeng. This is Mofokeng’s first solo exhibition in Cologne. 

Santu Mofokeng (1956-2020), born in Soweto, Johannesburg, began photographing everyday life in the townships as a teenager in the 1970s. He became a protégé of the acclaimed South African photographer David Goldblatt and joined the South African photographic collective Afrapix in 1985. “Afrapix gave me a home. It provided me with money to buy a camera and film in order to document Soweto and the rising discontent in the townships.” (Santu Mofokeng)
He witnessed the country’s path to democracy, as the African National Congress (ANC) won the election in April 1994 and their candidate Nelson Mandela became the first Black president of South Africa on May 9th. 

Mofokeng‘s images and texts tackle subjects like history and land, memory and spirituality. He is one of the artists who helped shape the course of South African photography, yet his documentary style defies easy categorisation. Over several decades he created an oeuvre that addresses monumental topics while retaining a sense of lightness and poetry.
The exhibition was initially conceived together with the artist during his lifetime and it features a selection from his seminal series Billboards. Mofokeng took the photographs between 1985 and 2010 in different parts of Johannesburg and Pretoria, such as Soweto, Orange Farm, Tembisa, Kempton Park and Enerdale. In Santu Mofokeng’s view, these billboards have been the medium of communication between the rulers and the denizens of townships since their inception. A relic from the time when Africans were subjugated and the township and its inhabitants were subject to racist laws governing who could or could not enter the cities. “It is without irony when I say that billboards can be used as reference points when plotting the history and development of the township. Billboards capture and encapsulate ideology, the social, economic and political climate at any given time.
”Apartheid billboards were chiefly concerned with the ‘sanitation syndrome’, enforcing the belief that Black Africans were “unclean” and required the intervention and guidance of the “white” man to be “purified”. Cleaning products, alcohol and later communication were the dominated in the advertisements. The economic boom of the sixties introduced American style highway billboards thus transforming the dissemination of the apartheid ideology into something ubiquitous and unassuming. In the 1970s and ‘80s overtly political billboards made their return. “I read somewhere that ads create a sense of participating in the utopia of beauty: Life as it should be. A drive from the city into Soweto will quickly dispel this notion as misguided. Billboards line the freeway on both sides. In the name of freedom of speech, one’s cultural sensibility is assaulted by textual and visual messages. The trip can hardly be described as boring. Nobody ever complains of the visual pollution. At the high speed of a minibus taxi, the billboards roll by like flipping pages in a book.” (Santu Mofokeng) 

From 1988 to 1998 Santu Mofokeng worked as a photographer and researcher at the Institute for Advanced Social Research at the University of Witwatersrand. He wrote essays, which he interspersed with the photographic works he published. For his groundbreaking project Black Photo Album/Look at Me: 1890-1950, which debuted at the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale, he compiled a slide projection of retouched studio portraits of middle-class black South Africans taken between 1890 to 1950. Santu Mofokeng’s work has been exhibited internationally at Jeu de Paume, Paris; Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland; Bergen Kunsthal, Norway and at the Walther Collection, Neu-Ulm. His work is in the collections of renowned institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris; MMK – Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt and Albertina, Vienna.

Title image: Santu Mofokeng, Dove Lady #4, Orlando East, Soweto, 2002 © Santu Mofokeng Foundation, courtesy Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, Johannesburg

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