Winner of the FNB Art Prize for 2018, artist and activist Haroon Gunn-Salie presented a harrowing installation – a development of his ongoing Senzenina project – as his featured booth. Gunn-Salie kindly sat down with ArtThrob to tell us more about this striking work.
ArtThrob: Firstly, congratulations on winning the FNB Art Prize for 2018! It’s certainly well deserved. Why did you decide to show this particular piece- Senzenina – at the Fair?
Haroon Gunn-Salie: The first sculptural iteration of the project traveled from the New Museum Triennial in New York to London for Frieze Sculpture 2018, and that was ultimately the goal destination of the work, given that the headquarters of Lonmin are there. When Goodman gallery approached me to develop a proposal for the prize, I said “Well, the works are in London, don’t you want to let me develop an aspect of the ongoing project specifically for this?” So I put together an extension of the original soundscape that we had created. The original version was 7 minutes long and it was significantly different to this.
I pitched it as an anti-establishment flip of the whole fair itself somehow: a black box in which you have a collective reflection space, as opposed to the fanfare-ism of the selfie moment that we’re in. And within that context created a soundscape that tries to really take you somewhere in a visceral way, and in an installation of the koppie.
AT: I love the way the work is presented here, the way it forces you into a very confined space with a number of people. It’s quite claustrophobic and really helps to immerse the viewer. You zone-out of where you are and just embrace the environment of the work.
HGS: Does it feel like you’re in the mine?
HGS: That was the intention, to force the viewer into the subterranean, to hopefully lose track of the rest of the environment and all of a sudden you are one with the piece.
AT: As soon as the shooting started it immediately took me back to that part in Miners Shot Down, which is obviously a very intense, quite traumatic part of the documentary. I don’t know if the sound effects were from there directly, but it was close enough to immediately take you straight back there.
HGS: Uhuru Productions gave us access to the newsreel footage that they had originally drawn from for that film, and then we drew from other archives from actual miners; the rock drilling for example was from pro-mining footage from the 1980s. Then there’s the struggle songs. In the middle you have the song asking who killed Chris Hani, and after Marikana that turned into “Who killed Mambush?” Who killed the man in the green blanket? So that piece in the middle is a significant moment of marking the protest and afterwards Senzenina, which was sung by the workers moments before they left the koppie.
That starts with Joseph Mathunjwa, with the loudhailer, and then we take it to a transcendental rendition of Senzenina, right after the massacre, we add another element which is the heartbeat. It doesn’t come before, it follows the massacre, and that’s the continuing heartbeat of the struggle which is ongoing. That’s the part that permeates the whole of the convention centre. How do you take a moment and have that take over the whole space somehow?
AT: And then you have that moment of quiet reflection at the end. This piece has obviously undergone a journey, from New York to London to Sandton. Do you find that in international spaces, there is an awareness of Marikana and what it represents in South Africa?
HGS: Yes, when I was in New York for example, I was surprised to see how many people did know about it. It really did hit the international headlines. On the other hand, what I’ve also found in reaching international audiences is how many cross-comparisons people have made. In New York for example, people would take a knee with the figures in the installation, and that’s one way that people had observed the presence of the sculptures and the connection to American politics right now; and how that work translated for them: the beheaded black striking worker. People have made connections to other mining disasters and other massacres that have happened in Ireland for instance, and while it’s surprising to see how many people know about it, but it’s also encouraging to realize how universal the struggle is.
AT: What’s also so interesting is looking at how corporations like Nike commodify the struggle or use it as something which obscures the reality of their production (sweatshops etc). It’s interesting in relation to Lonmin as a platinum mine and how much platinum’s usage in tech industries is obscured.
HGS: But where it’s not hidden is in this Square Mile. What build Sandton? What built Johannesburg? It’s mining. The immense wealth which mining generated for certain people. The entrenched grip that that still has on the economy. The workers that fall by the wayside and the rights that get violated. The lowly wages that they get paid and the terrible conditions in which they work. The disasters that keep happening. And that’s what Sandton is built on. So it’s also about provoking that into this space and making a historic disruption.
AT: You’re often referred to as being an ‘Artist/Activist’. How do you consolidate those two pulls in your work?
HGS: The answer to that question pre-dates me in a way. I was always raised to be an activist. I don’t think my parents had any idea at the point in which I was born in ’89 that the struggle would turn into a democratic resolution, so herein was born a recruit. I was raised in a military cell, I didn’t know children until I was 2, until we were out. So that has always left me with an innate desire to want to do something, to want to keep going with a struggle that I don’t yet believe has been realised. In fact I believe that its ‘realisation’ is a farce.
It’s less of a question for me of how to merge the two, I work as artist and I am an activist. 80% to 90% of the process doesn’t touch the gallery or museum floor. There’s so much process and intervention that goes into each project.
I’ll give a quick example: Soft Vengeance that’s on the Goodman’s booth. That’s Carl von Brandis. A series of castrated monuments in response to Rhodes Must Fall, the monuments debacle, looking at the real entrenchment of power that monuments have over us psychologically, devoid of any counter-narrative. For that work, I had to get permission from 12 government departments; including multiple DA departments and they all said “Yes”. So yes the work hangs on the wall because we cast it with silicone, but actually the political intervention was to convince all these bureaucrats in three cities to say “Yes, I’ll allow you to go up with silicone and replicate just the hands of these statues and present it as an artwork.”
TL: What’s so powerful about this version of Senzenina is how it operates as an empathy-generating space. You hear about Marikana, but there’s a disconnection there. When you’re in this work, it puts you in the space with the miners to the point where you can empathise with their experience.
HGS: That was exactly our intention. How do you translate trauma? How do you put trauma into an experiential form that presents you with something to take away from it? It’s a step towards the next phase of my practice, which is to go harder, go deeper!
TL: It’s such an effective use of sound as well, you create an experience similar to super hi-tech VR works like Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena. It’s a way of engaging the viewer’s imagination through nothing but sound and generating the temporary experience of trauma.
HGS: You just need five speakers and some cardboard!
TL: What do you think Marikana means to South Africa today?
HGS: Marikana was the foremost crossroads or turning point in our democracy. It was the most lethal strike by state forces since Sharpeville in the 1960s. It was a moment where we as South Africans got to see how fragile our democracy is, and to what extent the police would go to protect the interests – not of the people, not of the workers – but of multinational capital. It showed us where our priorities had misaligned since the end of apartheid, and hopefully it stands as a reminder that the struggle continues, and that Marikana is actually something that’s been happening again, and again, and again to our people since the Native Land act, since the discovery of gold, and since this city was formed. This whole country’s history was turned on its head, and Marikana is indicative of that. I think it was an eye-opener to us all, and I hope that this piece helps to keep the blinkers off.