Legendary photographer Santu Mofokeng – a visual poet

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Soweto-born South African photographer, Ntate Santu Mofokeng, who rose to world acclaim in the 90s to become one of Africa’s most prominent photographers, died on Sunday.

Born in 1956, he started his career as a street photographer during apartheid South Africa.

He documented life, landscape and memory. His invaluable works include research journals, essays and published photography books – a collection that will continue to make a critical contribution to the learning and teaching of photography.

In a statement the Mofokeng family said, “He is at rest now. His last days were filled with love and support from his family, including loving messages from friends and practitioners from all over the world.”

“Mofokeng was our loving husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle and friend,” said the statement.

His legacy has been incorporated in many a photography research and development programme.

According to the family, “The demand and interest in his photography archive is growing globally. He therefore has left all of us with a valued modern heritage in the arts and culture sector.”

Mofokeng joined the Afrapix collective in the early 80s, which was founded by Omar Badsha among others. The collective agency was composed of amateur and professional photographers who opposed apartheid in South Africa and documented the state of the country.

Badsha said, “He was a photographer and a leading intellectual … by the 90s, he had changed the face of photography, especially how black people were represented. Most of our work [Afrapix] was done on the very broad canvas in the fight for our liberation, but Santu and some other photographers were interested in how black people lived, where they lived without overly looking at poverty…”

Mofokeng sculpted an international career that won him numerous accolades including the Ernest Cole Award (1991), The 1st Mother Jones award for Africa (1991) and the Prince Claus Award (2009). And in 2016, the University of the Witwatersrand honoured him with an honorary doctorate.

Art historian and lecturer Thembinkosi Goniwe says, “It is sad, it is a great loss of one of our visionaries, so it is a really great loss…”

“Santu is one of the great photographers and he had a funny and poetic way of visualizing situations. His photography, I prefer to read as more like poetry, because he tells stories like a poet would do with words or a novelist would do with words…”

Goniwe says it is the duty of art historians to find ways to preserve the works of artists the likes of Santu Mofokeng.

Details of Mofokeng’s public memorial will be shared once confirmed.

See selection of some of Mofokeng’s works below: 

Santu Mofokeng by SABC Digital News