Curated by Joshua Chuang in collaboration with the photographer Steidl’s stories series presents images from Santu Mofokeng’s archives which compliment already published and exhibited work. They also enrich the appreciation of Mofokeng’s singular visual aesthetic and his commitment to recording everyday life in South Africa in his three decade long search for a means of capturing the ethereal and elusive feelings of his subjects. The first in the Stories series featured photos from Mofokeng’s acclaimed Train Church series. The second, third and fourth books focus on his work in Bloemhof in North West Province over a period from 1988 to 1994.
Presented in a brown paper envelope with a yellow label the books echo perhaps the manner in which the photos might appear in Mofokeng’s archive. Each of the books is preceded by a short description by Mofokeng and then we are drawn into the world of their events provided only with their stark black and white observations with no labels or additional description to distract from them. A brief note at the back of each book simply states the period and place of their capture.
Concert at Sewefontein records a night of recreation in a place Mofokeng describes as being “the place to be for anyone who’s worth his or her salt…Out of the purview of employers and minders they are free to frolic, mate or get drunk, according to their wish or inclination.” The double page photos full of movement and energy that pulsates out towards the viewer celebrate the expression of people living for a moment in a world unrestricted by the oppression beyond the frames on a Friday night in November in 1988. People talking, dancing, looking at the performances – vibrant and alive and in Mofokeng’s frames briefly freed from “the endless toll and drudgery of farm life.” The dynamism of the work conjures up the unseen elements beyond the visual – you can almost hear the music, smell the shebeen; hear the voices echoing off its shabby walls.
From the brief moment of self-expression in Sewefontein on a dark night in the terrible days of the Botha regime, the narrative moves to the dusty heat of a solemn day in November 1990. Mofokeng originally arrived in Bloemhof to document the lives of tenant farmers for historian Charles Van Onselen, particularly the lives of Kas Maine (who became the subject of Van Onselen’s book The Seed is Mine) and his family. Funeral details the burial of Maine’s sister-in-law Miriam, a woman Mofokeng describes as having “lived an obscure life, living it simply and admirably…She lived quietly and without complaint, and had nothing to defend herself with, for she had nothing against which to defend herself…She perished without much fanfare, except to those who knew her.” The photos provide a poignant bittersweet narrative of a community paying their respects to one of their own as best they can within the circumstances in which they find themselves. Their patience in the evident heat and persistent dust; the solemn performance of an age-old ritual that acknowledges her life, no matter its size or influence. Bread is broken and then with their cars and feet dredging up the dust, everyone returns to their own, everyday lives full of whatever vagaries these hold in a small town with its economic, social and psychological barriers.
Finally Mofokeng returns to Bloemhof to document that most momentous of days, the first democratic elections on April 27 1994. He speaks in his introduction of the “uneasy sense of euphoria,” which he experienced, “a combination of anticipation and dread, excitement and anxiety.” While Mofokeng notes that “one thing was certain though: people were determined to vote for a new democratic order,” he can’t help but recall “the old National Party slogan that resounded across the country when Prime Minister Verwoerd was laid to rest: ‘Lat die blikke en die sappe raas, die wit man bly bass.’ (Let loudmouths and the opposition shout, the white man remains boss). This is still true in Bloemhof, which is feudal but in name.” This is a point made by the first and last photos in the book depicting the entrance to the town with a vierkleur flying high above the sleepy dorp. Mofokeng captures the ironies of a town in which everyone is about to get their first chance to make their mark but in which the menial labour, lifting, carrying, cleaning – even on the eve of democracy – is still carried out by black labourers, while their khaki-shirted farmer masters look on. He also conveys the atmosphere of anxiety and euphoria in that moment of heady uncertainty and neatly shows the improvised set up of the first elections. A converted schoolroom with the day’s previous lessons still scrawled on the chalkboard serves as the polling station; two cardboard foldout booths erected in a classroom where cleaning fluids and post-it notes have been shoved to one side.
Together the three books provide a vital document of people in a specific place at different times, which is tellingly not bound by the period in which the photos were taken and provides a fitting testament to the spirit and humanity of the people of Bleomhof. They are also vivid and hauntingly captivating demonstrations of Mofokeng’s sensitive determination to provide an alternative to the violent, blood and tear drenched images that characterises so much of the South African photographic record of the period.