Santu Mofokeng’s ‘Eyes-Wide-Shut’

‘This ethereal portrait also miniaturizes Mofokeng’s quest for affinity and understanding in a world dogged by shadow’

Santu Mofokeng, Eyes-wide-shut, Motouleng Cave, Clarens – Free State, 2004, black and white photograph on baryta paper, 1 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and Kunsthal Extra City, Antwerp

Santu Mofokeng, Eyes-wide-shut, Motouleng Cave, Clarens – Free State, 2004, black and white photograph on baryta paper, 1 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and Kunsthal Extra City, Antwerp

In 2004, Santu Mofokeng visited Tokyo with a group of South African artists to exhibit at Tama Art University. A mischievous presence throughout the trip, Mofokeng drank too much at the South African ambassador’s residence in Roppongi Hills. He also mocked a well-regarded photographer in the group; revenge of sorts, I learnt years later, for statements he had made about black and white social documentary while exhibiting at the Bildmuseet, Umeå, in 1998. Mofokeng’s work largely eschews colour; what we call discourse, he taught me, often has a basis in personal enmity. In a Shinjuku bookstore, Mofokeng introduced me to the chiaroscuro work of Daido Moriyama. Later, heading back to Narita airport, he animatedly talked about his visit to Hiroshima, where he added new photographs to his archive of trauma landscapes. I left Japan with a cumulative sense of an artist who was puckish, curious, tender and unabashed.

A year later, I met Mofokeng at his house in Johannesburg. He was seated on the curb weeping when I arrived. His brother, Ishmael, was dying, he told me, from complications related to HIV/AIDS. He handed me a stack of prints documenting a recent trip with Ishmael to Motouleng Cave in the Free State. They included Eyes-wide-shut, an ethereal portrait that also miniaturizes Mofokeng’s quest for affinity and understanding in a world dogged by shadow. Looking at it now – Mofokeng’s once-garrulous laughter stilled, his body crumpled by a degenerative disease – I find consolation in this image. I know something of that photographer: his impertinence, his passion, and also his agony. 

Sean O’Toole is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

Issue 200

First published in Issue 200

January - February 2019

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