Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Out and About: Exhibit - Santu Mofokeno, "Chasing Shadows"

Buddhist retreat near Ixopo
The Jeu de Paume museum is a small but majestic building, as befits a king. It was built as a tennis court at the far end of the Louvre palace complex. Back then tennis was played with the palm of the hand, the paume. (I doubt very much if the French Open would be as interesting if that were still the case.) This building was used by the Nazis during World War II to "store, sort and ship to Germany artwork stolen from collectors, art dealers, artists and ordinary people of the Jewish faith." What the Nazis didn’t know was that the Director of National Museums had secretly assigned a certain conservator, Rose Valland, to note daily what they were doing. That made it possible after the war to recover more than 45,000 works of art. I’d hate to think what would have happened to Rose, had she been found out.

Exhibits change regularly and usually are contemporary in nature. Often there are several small exhibits at a time. A few years ago I saw a collection of photographs about the life of Georges Simenon, who wrote all the Maigret murder mysteries.

Right now there’s a show of photography by Santu Mofokeno called Chasing Shadows. Born in 1956 in a segregated Johannesburg, Mofokeno started off in the laboratory of a newspaper. But he soon turned toward photography as a form of social research, which is evident in his photographs. He says he tries to capture the collective conscience, but that’s like chasing shadows. Thus the title of the show.
     Mofokeno’s works are mostly in black-and-white and many are social commentary on the townships. The technique he learned in the newspaper’s photo lab is impeccable, but I had trouble connecting with the content somehow, although several shots are powerful and two distinctive ones are truly beautiful. It’s also a bit grim to see so few people at an exhibit - a bit barren - but maybe more people come in the afternoon.
     The theme of the first room is social commentary on apartheid. "Riding Staff" shows people hanging off of moving trains. "Police with Sjamboks, Plein Street" (1986) leaves you cringing at what you know came next. "Jahman Carwash" (2004) depicts a broken down bike advertising "repairs". All three of these put together give an idea of how life was bare-bones in the townships.
     The second room’s theme is Radiant Landscapes and reflects the ecological rape of South Africa by mining. Room 3 isn’t any more gay, with stark landscapes of other African countries and photos of the German concentration camps. But there are other photos - ones about religious rituals and where they take place - that are a bit different and try to capture those shadows he talks about.

When asked why he shoots almost entirely in black and white, Mofokeno explained, "A color photo immediately gives more information. It’s easy to read, to look at, and also easy to forget. I like a photograph to make you think." And that’s what you come away with: something to ponder on.

Until Sept. 25.

Jeu de Paume
1 place de la Concorde; Paris 8è

Métro Concorde
Noon to 7 during the week, week-ends 10-7. Tuesday open late until 9 pm. Closed Mondays. Entrance fee: €5.50-8.50

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