WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town
07.05.2016 – 18.06.2016
‘Chamber of Mines’ is a collaborative installation and sculpture exhibition of work by Rowan Smith and Xhanti Zwelendaba. The show is housed in the two fairly small project rooms on WHATIFTHEWORLD’s second floor. The first room contains Untitled (Amabohkebohke) and Untitled (Bale) – artworks that toy with the absurdity of the concept of the Rainbow Nation – and in the second room a number of new-media artworks pick up on the struggles of different demographics that interact with copper as a commodity.
The intention of the exhibition is to provoke thought about the inequitable way in which South Africa treats its people. To substantiate this claim Smith and Zwelendaba have chosen to show re-purposed and altered artefacts from the lives of miners, expats and copper thieves. An industrial scale, a transaction window and a taxi windshield represent a life far removed from the privileged gallery space. This is a life that involves travelling far from home to live in a migrant hostel, earning a meagre salary by tunneling into the hot, claustrophobic crust of the earth and enjoying few real protections from harm. It makes the statement that the legacy of black oppression and poverty has fed into South Africa’s ability to use cheap labour to access its mineral wealth.
Mineral wealth has buoyed SA’s economy along since the gold rush in the late 1800s, but changes to the commodity price (due to uninspiring economic growth from Europe and China) and widespread striking have diminished the importance of mining. “Most mining companies are trying to bail out (of SA) as fast as possible and we have very little exploration happening.” remarked Professor Chris Harris, Head of the UCT Geology Department. Although conditions for miners are problematic their lot could be far worse for not having a job. Harris mentions that it is a highly regulated field and that the real danger is in zama-zama mining – gang-run spelunking in decommissioned mines.
These attitudes to a sect of the labour force are contrasted in the works Homecoming Revolution (I) and (II), made up of a video work showing the arrivals board at an airport, a trio of deflating Jeff-Koon-sian copper balloons and lettered bunting (spelling out “welcome home”). These works hint at the warm welcome that predominantly-white emigres receive when they come home to SA. Their prodigal return is celebrated as a ‘brain gain’ because of their skills and education.
In opposing walls elsewhere in the space, fissures have been gouged and from them mangled copper pipes extrude. This reference to the theft of copper (a 7 billion rand-per-annum problem according to the SACCI) shows another case of the desperation that some South Africans experience, leading them to choose risky, often violent lives.
In the case of the miners and thieves their existence is arguably less precious to the state than the mineral wealth they extract or steal, whereas for those with sufficient material privilege copper is simply another piece of the circuitry in their smartphone or part of the process that lights and warms their homes. It is rare, despite inhabiting the great age of information, that we breach the gaps in knowledge that exist along a commodity’s trajectory from raw material to finished product and this exhibition aims to make us aware of the origins and the hands through which our copper has passed.
Untitled (Amabohkebohke) and Untitled (Bale) represent a shift in thinking from the rest of the exhibition. Untitled (Bale) is a compressed block of braai paraphernalia – produced by using a garbage compactor. In responding to the change from ‘National Heritage Day’ to ‘National Braai Day’ the government has made the ridiculous statement that we have so diverse a population that our only noteworthy commonality is that we occasionally cook over a fire. It is a ham-handed attempt to unify by erasing the parts of our diverse heritages that matter. In the same line of sight as the bale hangs a light-box display of Chester Williams (the first black player on the post-1994 Rugby team) mischievously clutching a rugby ball and dodging Apartheid riot police. It is a work that humorously points out the tokenism of the appointment of “the Black Pearl” to the team. The recent months of tackling the exclusivity and white-ness of institutions such as universities has coincided with the death of the haggard concept of Rainbowism. It must be so tiring to hear touristy slogans about our “rainbow nation” if you are a mineworker or make what little money you can scrounging for copper.
It is interesting to note that unlike that which it refers to, the exhibition is aesthetically cohesive and clean. The palette is minimal; black, white and copper, with bright accents of ‘danger-zone’ red. It is a product that is designed to be consumed by gallery visitors; a shiny pill with a bitter aftertaste of self-reflection.