Arts and Culture 2007-2015


Column: Minnette Vari and Excavation

First appeared
Thursday, 12 September 2013


A few months ago, readers of this column may have caught me grousing about the Cradle of Humankind: “The threat of bathos hangs over the heads of all who drive north of Krugersdorp in search of themselves,” I wrote.

Since then, however, I’ve returned to the Cradle a couple of times – fossil-hunting at Cooper’s Cave, stargazing at the Maropeng Hotel – and I’m pleased to report that my opinion has changed. If you’re not too precious about it, and don’t adopt an idealistic or naïve primitivism in your approach to the landscape, it is just possible to gain profound (albeit fleeting) insights into the long arc of human development, to glimpse some of the connections between what we were and what we are. 

Studying the night sky can remind us that life on earth is possible because of the chemical elements created in cosmic explosions; it can also remind us that the devastating effects of a series of meteorites facilitated the dominance of mammals and the subsequent evolution of hominid species. Put that together with the knowledge we have gained from fossils of Australopithecus and the Homos (neanderthalensis, erectus, sapiens) and there seems to be a certain inevitability about our current situation.

We developed tools to help us eat, to help us fight and, later, to help us get stuff out of the ground. There was plenty of stuff in the ground to get, and we’ve been fighting over it for millennia ... with the end result that a few people own most of the stuff, and most people have too little to eat. If that seems a facetious or simplistic account of the global conflict over resources, and the South African mining crisis in particular, then I recommend a visit to Minnette Vari’s Songs of Excavation for a more complex – and therefore also inconclusive – treatment of the subject.

The exhibition, at the Goodman Gallery Johannesburg (163 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood, until 28 September), is a richly conceived and neatly executed meditation on one of the artist’s abiding interests: “the revelatory potential of turning up the soil, or drawing things out of the earth”. Vari acknowledges that this is not “an unfamiliar trope” among her contemporaries, but distances herself from representations of “the direct confrontation between landscape, capital, labour and imagination that goes into the iconography of South African mining”, finding these “less tenable” in the aftermath of Marikana.

I’m not entirely persuaded by this claim; the work of a young artist like Khehla Chepape Makgato, recently on show at the Michaelis Art Library, is a necessary form of activism. Makgato’s portraits of working or striking miners, their families and the police force us to address the grim realities of labour relations, union activity, migration patterns and corporate-state coercion that pervade the sector.

Nonetheless, Vari’s more tangential approach to the subject does have its advantages, allowing her to connect “the ancient and more recent history of the Johannesburg region”: “from the Cradle of Humankind, to the Gold Rush and Randlord era, to more personal and contemporary narratives relating to the city.” It is that ancient, almost atavistic impulse that lends Songs of Excavation an archetypal and even supernatural potency.

Vari implicitly challenges the masculinist assumptions that underlie much popular discourse around mining by evoking the figure of Baubo, an elderly woman in Greek mythology and later a cult divinity whose naked ribaldry is both a kind of comic relief and an expression of proto-feminist liberation. She seems to merge with the female and male forms who haunt the “Treasure” series: “strange denizens, across whose bodies flit the ghostly ectoplasmic remains of those who labour underground” (spectral presences are also to be seen in the disturbingly anachronistic “Revenant” video projection and Lambda prints).

The subtitles are telling. Treasure, for example, is Foretold, Wagered, Taken, Blighted, Abandoned, Forgotten and Lost, describing a cycle of mineral extraction and consumption that is near-universal but has specific resonances in South Africa, where we depend so heavily on mining but daily count the cost of this dependence in human, economic and environmental terms – the latter emphasised by the inverted stacks of heavy industry, turning smoke and effluent into the clouds, rain and stars of an apocalyptic world.  



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