Photography

Never-before-seen photos by famed Santu Mofokeng on exhibit in Soweto

The pop-up exhibition marks the publication of 21 books by the world-renowned chronicler of black South African life

19 May 2019 - 00:08 By


Gerhard Steidl is not a fan of small talk. So allergic is the German publisher to this form of verbal flatulence that he keeps engagements to a technocratic minimum. Even if he is flying into another country. He flies in and out. On the same day. So it is rare that he is spending the night in SA. He has been here twice before. For a day.
After landing at OR Tambo last Friday morning he drove straight to Kliptown, Soweto, to set up a pop-up exhibition with bookmaker Lunetta Bartz and New York Public Library-based editor Joshua Chang, in the Sky Community Centre Library. A venue that until yesterday had no electricity or running water, and indeed little proof that it is in fact a library. Things, it seems, are pretty bad in Kliptown.
I find Steidl painting signs on colourful A3 paper - to better direct people to the exhibition. Bartz has raised money to lay in the lights. Again. But the connection is patchy - it comes and goes. Eventually they stay on, illuminating the photographs that have been hung around the walls to mark the publication of 21 books by Santu Mofokeng, world-renowned documenter of black SA life.
"The photos are beautiful, they are very good so it is easy to make a good print. With Santu we wanted something not pretentious, something more handsome, and easy to engage with," explains Steidl. "Something like the format of Time Life."
To attest to Mofokeng's beginnings as a newspaperman, the booklets have the same familiar reportage format. Each contains a Mofokeng story like Train Church, Pedi Dancers, Robben Island and Billboards.
Many of the photographs have not been seen before and it is significant that the first pop-up is happening in Soweto, where Mofokeng was born in 1956. The place seems to brutally reflect the complexities of life in SA, just as his documentary photographs have spelt out a direct challenge, forcing an authoritative rethink of what you think you know about life in SA over the past 30 years.
Through his work at Afrapix, the collective of photographers who chose to fight apartheid using their medium as a challenge to authority, then at the African Studies Institute at Wits University, he documented ordinary township life. Finally as an acclaimed global artist he has been honoured with a retrospective at the Jeu de Paume in Paris and represented Germany at the Venice Biennale.
Mofokeng's photographs seem to float like apparitions on the walls of the community library. They are direct and hard-hitting but also ethereal, like provocations but also like prayers. Something in the paper and the printing embodies this feeling. Steidl confirms the paper is of his own making. He created it at a German mill specifically for his publications. It is called Fly, and is light as air and holds the ink just so.
"I could talk about this for 24 hours." So this is not small talk then. In truth he has no time for it, his publishing house is too busy. There are at least 200 projects on the go at a time, and any photographer worth his zoom lens wants to get on his press.
"I have a deep respect for the artist, I want to fulfil his vision on paper," he says. I believe him. From here Mofokeng's dream will go out into the world, to at least 50 locations. Where Steidl will spend no more than a day.
• To purchase the 21 books, contact steidlbooks@makerstudio.co.za or call 011-447-6680.

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