One-person Cape Town exhibition explores aesthetic appeal of mining

3rd October 2008 By: Jade Davenport - Creamer Media Correspondent

The aesthetic appreciation of mining is a rarely explored concept in South African art.

However, a new exhibition, compiled by internationally acclaimed artist Jeannette Unite, has opened in Cape Town, which aims to explore the aesthetic nature of South Africa’s mining and industrial landscape.

The exhibition, titled ‘Remem-bering the Future’, is essentially a visual exhibition of 11 artworks concentrating on mining headgears from copper, gold, platinum, coal and iron-ore mines located across South Africa.

In an interview with Mining Weekly, Unite explains that the exhibition is a consolidation of visual documentation from personal travels, over the last eight years, to mines and industrial areas around South Africa.

As well as using this visual documentation, Unite has also explored some 45 km of archival information relating to the history of the South African mining industry and used such information as the basis for her art.

The research essentially focused on the visual abstract possibilities in the idiosyncratic and unique designs for headgears in the Cape Town Archives photographic collections, elaborates Unite.

To this was added resources from the archives in the Africa Museum, in Johannesburg, museums in Alexander Bay, Port Nolloth and Kimberley, as well as discussions with people in the mining industry.

Unite explains that she is intrigued by the concept of archival knowledge in terms of the politics of what is and is not stored, the process of retrieving records, and the loaded issue of who gets access to such historical depositories.
On the basis of this interest, Unite has chosen to locate her exhibition at the National Archives, in Cape Town, where she has been assigned two rooms for the exhibition.

Elaborating on the title of the exhibition, Unite explains that “Remembering the Future” refers to the selected cultural memory that is created through the infor-mation that is stored and that which is not.

Despite the academic basis of the art, Unite insists that she has approached the exhibition from the perspective of a sensualist, not as an academic.

The 11 artworks that were created specifically for this exhibition are large, bold, abstract and emotive depictions of mining headgears, shafts and industrial cranes.

Discussing the nature of her work, Unite states that her art is quite abstract and sensual.

“I have chosen to depict the visual imagery in an abstract format because the process of mining in itself is abstract, involving the amalgamation of a variety of disciplines,” continues Unite.

“I want people to respond sen- sually to things because I think that helps them to access any idea.”

The concept for the tall vertical format of the mining drawings developed out of numerous visits to mine sites in which human scale is dwarfed by the scale of engineering surface works.

In fact, it could be argued that these artworks are a celebration of the individuality and idiosyncratic nature of the thousands of headgears that litter South Africa’s industrial landscape.

Indeed, Unite insists that such metal structures should be admired as the engineering design has changed since the industrial revolution so that these magnificent dancing metal shaft head structures are being replaced by modernist concrete towers.

The materials that have been used to create the art are an especially noteworthy feature as the works have been created using handmade pastels, which incorporate significant diamondiferous materials and metal oxides including iron, ochre, titanium dioxide, graphite carbon and charcoal.

Much of the art that is created by Unite incorporates leftover minerals, sometimes toxic, which is literally embedded into the work.

An illustration of this is Unite’s ‘Earth’s Crust’, which literally comprises mining dump waste, metal oxides and foils transformed through heat into 28 glass panels.

When asked to elaborate on her attraction to the depiction of the South African mining and industrial heritage through art, Unite explains that such attraction was at first a rather serendipitous one.

A personal rela- tionship, which started in 2000, provided access to mining sites on South Africa’s West Coast, first Alexcor, on the Orange river estuary, and later the alluvial diamond beach deposits, three-and-a-half-hours’ drive from Cape Town, past Vredendal or Koekenaap, where the Orange river used to flow out to sea at the Olifants river.

Through this exposure, Unite was struck by the polarised landscape inherited from earlier mining attempts and the scars that the lack of rehabilitation of such areas have left on the South African landscape.

Unite further elaborates that she was attracted to the exploration of mining through art as both a personal experience and as a need to create art that is rele-vant to South Africa geographically, geologically, sociologically, technically and historically.
‘Remembering the Future’ marks Unite’s twelfth solo exhibition.