Exhibition interrogates our mining history

South African artist, Jeannette Unite, latest art exhibition, PLOT: Critical Zones, is about the destruction of earth through mining as well as a dedication to the fallen miners of the Marikana massacre. The exhibition can be seen at the Iziko South African Museum.

Artist, Jeannette Unite in front of part of the periodic table made of the actual elements.

On August 16, 2012, officers of the South African Police Services shot dead 34 miners during a strike at the Lonmin platinum mine in Rustenburg, North West province. Ms Unite’s artwork is a reminder of that tragedy.

“This was inspired by the images of the crosses and letters, which were the markings of the deceased at the Marikana tragedy. They used a yellow spray paint and yellow is the colour of chrome, it’s related to the platinum group,” Ms Unite said.

“So I call them the memorial pieces, some have the blast-patterns on them and this is acknowledging that these miners lost their lives for something (mining platinum) they did not benefit from.”

The Marikana art piece with the distinctive yellow cross, a marking for the deceased.

An artwork labelled Admission of guilt: Geode Copper, signifies the extraction of copper from Namaqualand which has left that region desolate.

Ms Unite uses left-over minerals from the mines on marine ply panels as well as canvas to create colours and textures that are unusual and moving. The artworks are strategically arranged in a barcode-style layout to represent the minerals as products.

“The copper was extracted and used in England; it was used to electrify the Western world. After the extraction, acidic and corrosive toxins were released. I got some soil from a smelter and I kept it wet and used it with the paint, but it’s so acidic that it curdled with the paint. I stabilised it afterwards and now it’s ready to be archived, but each piece has elements that have been mined,” she said.

“When we (consumers) buy products the barcode is scanned, this style applies to the consumption of the minerals and the spaces represent the void after extraction, and the minerals also tell a story,” she said.

Geology Honours students from the University of Cape Town attended the opening of the exhibition and were fascinated by the use of paint and mining materials.

“It’s intriguing, I’m doing an Honours project that’s about mining, specifically about diamond mining and how it’s brought up to the surface, so this is eye-opening – how it’s being used in art and the message that it sends,” said Anele Joni, 24, from Carletonville, Gauteng.

Mr Joni says that mining is necessary for the economic growth of the country and hopes that the industry moves away from the harmful methods that are used.

“This country is dependent on mining and yes it has been exploited and there has been a negative impact on the environment, but I feel like we should progress towards cleaner energy use because in order to build a solar power panel, you need specific minerals that require mining,” he said.

The barcode theme can be seen throughout the PLOT exhibition.

“I love that the artist used the minerals in art, I didn’t think it was possible. I think it’s phenomenal that she used these elements to create the periodic table, I love it,” said Nkazimulo Zuma, 21, who is majoring in Geochemistry.

Ms Zuma says that sustainability is essential to mining and hopes that people get that message from the PLOT: Critical Zones exhibition.

“My intention, as an up-and-coming geologist and as an environmentalist, is that I’m working towards finding new and sustainable ways for mining as it is an important industry for our country, but destroying our environment is not going to help because at some point we won’t be able to mine,” Ms Zuma said.

Dr Robyn Pickering, a UCT lecturer and geologist, says the combination between art and science is remarkable.

She pointed out that the Geo Seam: Geo-Spatial Mapping artwork, created with gold dust, is distinctive as she is familiar with the devastation of Johannesburg’s gold mines.

“It’s beautiful this art, using the minerals, the elements and the waste products, it’s beautiful and confronting at the same time, making us aware of the consumption of the earth by mining and making us think critically of mining,” Dr Pickering said.

Dr Robyn Pickering, on the left, scrutinising and discussing the PLOT: Critical Zones artworks.