A Stygian Darkness: Destruction and Detritus in the South African Mining Industry: A closer look

22 Jun 2016 - 13:45
Elize de Beer, an Honours in Curatorship student and an intern for Dr Siona O’Connell’s recent exhibition A Stygian Darkness, writes about her experiences working on the exhibition and how it came together as a sum of many parts.

Curating is more than just arranging artworks and hanging them on a wall, it’s finding the seemingly perfect marriage between artworks and objects to enhance the power of display to create a successful exhibition. Working on A Stygian Darkness taught me how the finer details of an exhibition can enhance the whole. After the doors open and the wine is served and the speeches are said, it is the works in the gallery space and the message they convey that takes centre stage.

A Stygian Darkness is the perfect example of an exhibition that came together through the various components. The title itself speaks to the hellish darkness that encapsulates the brave men picking at the tunnels of our South African mines. The shimmering gold they extract from the earth has a dark impact on the land and its people. It was this darkness that the exhibition wanted to convey to the viewer. The exhibition was a collaboration between the CCA and the UCT Law Faculty, bridging the gap between art and law to celebrate the launch of the South African Research Chair: Mineral Law in Africa. The aim was to draw attention to the manifold impacts of mining waste in South Africa. Curator Dr Siona O’Connell took the impacts of mining a step further and attempted to speak to the impact mining has had not only on the environment but, also, on people’s lives.

Taking a simple idea of mining waste, and creatively finding a way to speak to a larger discourse of South Africa’s mining history, a photographic competition was hosted to find images that spoke to these issues, that of mining and its effects. Photography as an art form allowed for a realistic portrayal of realities of the mining industry. The competition was titled Destruction and Detritus in the South African Mining Industry. The brief shifted slightly from an initial desire of only discussing environmental issues, instead we asked the public to look at the impact of mining as a whole. The project involved reaching out to all parts of South Africa: schools, universities, mining unions and communities, to source a wide selection of photographs from diverse backgrounds. Entries came mainly from the mining capital, Johannesburg. It was exciting to see the amount of interest people had regarding the topic. The photographs that were entered spoke towards issues of water pollution, land pollution, abandoned mine dumps and acid mine drainage, to name a few. The photographs also spoke to issues around the people working in these mines, issues such as migrancy, housing, strikes and a dark reality in South Africa’s recent past, the Marikana massacre.

The exhibition consisted of five artists that were chosen from the competition entries. In addition to the photographs, we installed objects and works in the exhibition to extenuate and add context to the works. One of these was the Fanagolo bi-lingual language scrolls that were hung from two of the walls. These showed the Fanagolo word next to the English translation. For example: Lo ndoda: the worker, Madodos: workers, Mayin: mine. The mining community has been created and shaped from a vast diversity of people and languages, to find a common language between them was done by creating an amalgamation of all the languages spoken. The Fanagolo text added emphasis to the fact that these were real people, even though it is not a written language the text in the exhibition added a greater sense of reality to the photographic stills.

Another object that brought a sense of reality to the photographs were the red and green gloves displayed next to the winning picture. The winning image, Three hunters and Three Dogs depicted three young boys playing and trying to climb into an abandoned mine tunnel that had been exposed on the side of a mine dump. The attention to the colours in the photographs is intensified by the gloves. These accents of colour, even so small, make the winning picture the focal point. The gloves, worn on each hand of the men working in the mines, are used to identify each side of the body in case of a tunnel having collapsed. They represent the harsh realities of working in the mines, and intensify the message that resides in the winning photographs, that abandoned mines and the people surrounding them live a stark reality.

The exhibition was about representing the dark realities of mining, it is represented by means of the photographs and objects on the walls. It is the feeling of being surrounded by that darkness that O’Connell also wanted to convey to the viewer. The gallery space was thus laid out in such a way as to imitate the dark tunnel space. There was little room, and the walls were painted a rich black/blue, the same colour that has been accented throughout the text in the exhibition. This darkened the corner of the gallery with spot lights on the hanging scrolls, and white frames on either side, and in the centre a television screen hangs playing a video with subtle sounds of a mining tunnel. The video playing was a book being paged though of the mining photographs of Ernest Cole’s House of Bondage Series. These emotive black and white photographs showed some of the hard realities of the men and women working as cheap mining labour. The video illumined the dark room, a veritable light at the end of the tunnel.

Working on this exhibition made me realize that the finer detail in an exhibition makes all the difference. Even if the viewer does not notice them out right, they are felt in their overall experience of the exhibition. It was made to make an impression on the viewer, to represent the urgency for change within the mining industry.

Photographs courtesy of Barnabas Ticha Muvhuti 

A Stygian Darkness: Destruction and Detritus in the South African Mining Industry: A closer look