A remarkable moment in the history of South African photography occurred in a car somewhere in the northwest Oregon in 2013. Legendary German publisher Gerhard Steidl had been visiting legendary American photographer Robert Adams with international curator Joshua Chuang.
Sharing a ride, the full extent of the works of South African photographer Santu Mofokeng was revealed to Steidl, on a laptop, by Chuang. The curator proposed a project that would pave the way to an unorthodox new way of publishing and exhibiting photography. This weekend, the latest instalment arrives at the FNB Joburg Art Fair in Sandton.
In short, the works of Mofokeng are being published in booklets, not in monographic form. At the end of Steidl’s massive effort to make available the major works of South Africa’s major Black photographer there will be 18 booklets in total.
They are sold, either as singles or in collections of three. At the art fair, the newest title - Soweto - will be launched at a special stand devoted to Steidl, the world’s most sought-after photographic book publisher.
The roll-out of Mofokeng’s work has been engineered by the photographer’s agent Lunetta Bartz, owner of Maker design studio in Parkwood, Johannesburg. It was Bartz who introduced Chuang to the work of Mofokeng in Cape Town in 2013, handing him a hard drive of 30 000 images, and a photographic love affair was borne.
The booklets, edited by Chuang, are introduced by Mofokeng, and to-date a total of four have been published, collectively named Santu Mofokeng Stories. The titles give a clear idea of the content: Train Church, Concert at Sewefonteien, Funeral and 27 April 1994. Each is a record of a moment in time, a black and white drama of epic, South African proportion.
In the struggle years Mofokeng brought the faceless mass to life with his photographic investigations, attending gatherings on the sidelines of mainstream struggle politics. Coming out of the Afrapix collective of the 1980s, from 1989 to 1998 Mofokeng worked at the African Studies Institute at Wits University under Charles van Onselen.
“Mofokeng is far more interested in a nuanced exploration of the effects of apartheid than merely confronting it head-on at the frontlines,” curator and critic Okwui Enwezor wrote in the monograph Chasing Shadows, published by Prestel in 2011.
The Prestel publication took a broad and sweeping look at Mofokeng’s oeuvre. But the Steidl series shows the immediate photographic choices Mofokeng made in the heat of the moment, as he stood in the throngs of a rapidly changing South Africa.
Also, the Steidl booklets present the images in a form more true to their original intention, hovering as they do between photojournalism and personal odyssey.
Santu Mofokeng images of Soweto (this is what is on the pop-up Steidl stand at the FNB Joburg Art Fair)
At the time, when South Africa was enduring its moments of greatest uncertainty, it was probably furthest from his mind that the images would someday land up as the centrepiece of the rather elite FNB Joburg Art Fair. For that’s exactly where they are exhibited this weekend.
In a further act of innovation, Bartz has worked with art fair curator Lucy MacGarry to combine the bookselling aspect of the fair with the VIP lounge. Here, the reading matter will be displayed on Maker-designed shelving.
Bartz and Maker design studio will present a dedicated Steidl booth, as they did last year when they hosted Gerhard Steidl himself at a standing room-only presentation. But there’s more.
Steidl and Chuang began their exploration of the works of Mofokeng with a commitment to exhibiting Mofokeng internationally. The nature of his images, and the unusual nature of the publications, has warranted a re-think of the traditional photo-exhibition format.
Gone are the glossy prints behind glass in expensive neutral framing. The group has manufactured a pop-up exhibition concept in which different sized, digital prints create narrative and presence. This made-to-order concept will be equally impressive and easy to install at art fairs, museums, or learning institutions.
“It’s not commercial at all,” says Bartz, “and it’s not trying to encourage throw-away art in any way, but to show that an exhibition can be created modestly. And that the work can be accessed by anyone.”