Sacred and Profane Ground: The Work of Santu Mofokeng
In 1986 Santu Mofokeng began a series of photographs of church services held on the commuter trains that ran between Soweto and Johannesburg. Ten years later he began 'Chasing Shadows', an ongoing project documenting religious ceremonies in caves, public parks, vacant lots, and the underside of highway overpasses. In the interval between these two projects, South Africa began working out a new relationship between people and the land, rural and urban, that they occupied.
Political solutions to land ownership address historical necessity but at the same time mask some fundamental and troubling questions about the meaning of place in South Africa. Though neither of these two photographic projects by Mofokeng is recent, they are an important contribution to the debates on ownership and political power.
They take seriously the religious mythologies that are deeply embedded in South African culture and see these as one way to understand concepts of space and place. 'Chasing Shadows' was recently on view at the David Krut Fine Art gallery in New York, alongside Mofokeng's other ongoing project 'The Black Photo Album/ Look at Me 1890-1950'.
In a book on Christian mysticism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the French religious historian Michel de Certeau includes a chapter about a nomadic religious man called Labadie. "The 'tireless wandering' of this baroque hero," Certeau argues, "gives relevance to a spatial problematic. The inner journey was transformed into a geographical one. Labadie's story is that of indefinite space created by the impossibility of a place." 
His nomadism, says Certeau, "[is] a transgression of the law specific to each place."  It is an enactment of an imagined spiritual journey that, in the religious atmosphere of the seventeenth century, is replete with political significance.
The creative and often subversive uses of space that Santu Mofokeng's work explores are, like Labadie's itinerancy, a series of "defensive maneuvers" against the appropriation and theft of space that South Africans experienced under apartheid. Mofokeng insists that 'Train Church', undertaken at the height of unrest in the 1980s, was "cast in political terms."
The itinerant churches were partly a response to the strains of commuting forced upon millions of South Africans: the rising in the dark, the long journey to places of work, the return home late at night. One simply had no time to go to church.
But apart from their purely practical import, the train churches may also be seen as an attempt to appropriate the in-between of the journey to and from work, to recast the repetitive hardship of commuting in spiritual terms, or, at the very least, to create a space for the rituals of worship within the constraints of forced movement. The spiritual atmosphere of the train is both a release from and a reminder of oppression.
Certeau notes that Labadie's "nomadic life is the spatial manifestation of the permanent relation in which he stands to the law of his loss." In 'Train Church' the commuting believers try to undo this loss. This is a gesture at once radical and utopian.
Mofokeng's relationship to his subjects in this series recalls the dispassionate style of Walker Evans's New York 'Subway' series of the late 1930s. But in 'Train Church' Mofokeng has put no physical distance between himself and his subjects. Like them, he is confined to the claustrophobic capsule of the train carriage, his close-up images conveying the heightened tension of religious ecstasy and suggesting that every experience in the train - the laying on of hands, prayer, and singing - is immediate and visceral.
Like Evans, Mofokeng is an unnoticed observer. But Evans' camera was hidden from sight. Mofokeng's subjects ignore him not because he is unremarkable but because they are caught up in a spiritual atmosphere in which the photographer's presence is almost superfluous.
In 'Chasing Shadows', Mofokeng is once again the detached observer. This includes a series of pictures taken on Good Friday, 1996, of a religious service at the Motouleng caves outside Clarens in the Free State. The shadows of the project's title have several layers of meaning.
Mofokeng remarks that the words for shadow in the vernacular, seriti or is'thunzi, evoke a powerful presence rather than the absence suggested by the word in English. The seriti or is'thunzi exert a good or evil influence and may be called up by the living for a variety of reasons. A positive seriti is very desirable and acquiring it is often the goal of religious rituals.
But the connotations of the word in English are not completely absent from these images. The photographs balance an ephemeral quality against the implacability of the physical environment in which the rituals take place. In the work Kgoro, several white robes pinned to a clothesline inside a cave have a ghostly appearance suggesting absence or death, a quality heightened by the rocky background against which they hang.
In Easter Sunday Church Service, 1996 a crowd of women in white robes and headscarves stands as though listening or waiting. The women on the left are sharply defined but a pall of dust or smoke from a fire obscures the features of those on the right. This gradation from clarity to indefiniteness that Mofokeng has framed generates a subtle unease, as though the viewer, at the moment of seeing, is partially blinded.
In Inside Motouleng Cave a triangular wedge of light slices across the centre of the photograph leading the eye from the space outside the cave on the left to the darkness inside the cave on the right. At the apex of this elongated triangle of light a small group of people stands, barely visible in the gloom.
The wedge of light evokes the spiritual symbolism of certain religious paintings but the space that this light pierces is so unmovable, so oppressive and massive, that the transcendence suggested by the light is undercut by a chthonic weight. The light, almost perversely, leads the eye to a pinpoint not of clarity but of obscurity.
Just as in 'Train Church', the photographer is barely apprehended by his subjects. There are no portraits or confrontations with the camera, and no registering of the viewer as either intruder or participant. Mofokeng is 'at the scene' but preserves an omniscience that conveys a tense ambivalence to the rituals he is documenting.
In an essay produced for an exhibition of this work, Mofokeng writes that being at Motouleng was like "gaping at my tortured childhood, replete with the odours, the deafening cacophony of sounds and taunting visions of the abyss." Mofokeng has suggested that such practices as those at Motouleng signal a tendency to seek answers to social and political problems in God or the ancestors. This may be explained, says Mofokeng, because most South Africans "live outside of time."
This deliberately opaque remark is easily misinterpreted, but one aspect of it is borne out by the highly charged rituals enacted at Motouleng. The caves are important not only because they have become a theatre of belief in God and the ancestors, but also because the bones of the prophetess Mmantsoupa were interred in the caves in the 1890s.
The caves thus lie at the nexus of an historical event - the interment of bones - and a spiritual world of ancestors. Participants in the rituals at Motouleng move imaginatively between this world of time and history and the world of the ancestors.
One image in the series eloquently conveys this movement. In Evangels Crossing a Stream, three women in white robes step across a small stream. The photographer is behind them and cannot see their faces, except for that of one young woman who turns slightly, her pensive backward glance evoking all the drama of faith and doubt. This is one of the most romantic of Mofokeng's images and it brings to mind elements of certain Old Testament stories.
An important interpretive tool in such stories is the explanation of landscapes and natural occurrences in narrative terms. So a story is told in which two wicked cities are burned up. A woman fleeing the scene looks back out of curiosity and is turned into a pillar of stone. Two goals are achieved simultaneously: a moral or religious lesson is imparted through the story and the landscape becomes invested with spiritual significance.
Mofokeng's work engages directly with this phenomenon. But what happens, one is compelled to ask, when landscapes acquire spiritual meaning? For one, the people who inhabit or make use of those landscapes feel connected to a spiritual realm. This is a source of comfort and perhaps even personal and political empowerment. But how will this connection to the divine translate into political efficacy?
At the same time, how will South Africans reconcile, within the current political landscape, the myriad elements that constitute identity without becoming embroiled in a tired identity politics? The shadowiness of the scenes that Mofokeng has captured - a quality heightened by the grainy texture that his enlarging of 35mm film brings about and by his tendency to print images very darkly - and his contention that many South Africans live outside of time, evoke a mythology of indeterminacy that besets conceptions of African identity.
In his essay 'African Modes of Self-Writing', Achille Mbembe argues that the "rhetoric of nonsubstantiality, instability, and indetermination is just one more inadequate way to come to grips with African imaginations of the self and the world." This assessment follows Mbembe's careful tracing of the problematic conflation of race and place.
"In the prose of nativism," he notes, "a quasi-equivalence is established between race and geography ... geography becoming the privileged site at which the (black) race's institutions and power are supposed to be embodied." There are myriad problems arising from this conception of identity, not the least of which is that identity itself becomes instantiated upon territoriality.
At stake in Mofokeng's work is the question of self-presentation in relation to politics, geography, and the supernatural. 'Train Church' and 'Chasing Shadows' point to a collective reclaiming of space that is nothing like the constitutional redistribution of land underway in South Africa.
They do not offer an alternative but they uncover what Mbembe calls an "instituting imagination" in which a conception of self "arises from the interaction between the world of the empirical and what cannot be reduced to it."
What Michel de Certeau calls "the impossibility of a place" is akin to what Mofokeng means by living "outside of time." Mbembe brings these two notions together when he suggests that what is needed in order to escape an over-determination of race and geography is to rethink "the notion of time in its relation to memory and subjectivity". Mofokeng's photographs suggest that such a rethinking may have been underway in South Africa for quite some time.
1. The Mystic Fable. Trans. Michael B. Smith. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992, p.217.
2. Ibid, p274
3. Chimurenga, 2004, p19
4. Ibid, p14
5. Ibid, p19
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Recent doctoral graduate Bronwyn Law-Viljoen is an editorial intern with Aperture magazine.