Since 2011, the New York outpost of Germany’s Walther Collection has been an important showcase for modern and contemporary African photography. Case in point: this excellent minisurvey of the work of Santu Mofokeng, titled, “A Metaphorical Biography.” It positions him as both a photojournalist and an artist concerned with questions of meaning and representation.
Born in Johannesburg in 1956, Mofokeng began his professional career in the mid-1980s as a member of the photo agency Afrapix. In the turbulent decade leading up to apartheid’s end, he produced photo essays on South African townships, offering a more complex view of their inhabitants’ lives than the coverage found in the global media. Taken between 1988 and 1994, the pictures include a wonderful image of a solemn man seen in a mirror while eating, and another of a golf game being played on scrubland.
During the 1990s Mofokeng began to collect late-19th- and early-20th-century studio portraits of middle-class black South Africans. These became his 1997 slide show, The Black Photo Album/Look at Me: 1890–1950, in which intertitles provide biographical information on some of the subjects, while also questioning what their real-life experiences might have been.
Another series on South Africa’s sacred Motouleng caves includes a 2004 photograph of a man wearing a vest, leather work coat and hat with ear flaps. His eyes are closed, but he’s fiercely present. The picture is actually a portrait of Mofokeng’s brother, a traditional healer, shortly before his death from AIDS. Like much of Mofokeng’s work, it records a moment in time but also the intangibles of personal and collective history.—Anne Doran