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Jeannette Unite

By Andrew Lamprecht

Jeannette Unite
Sentences, 2001. oil on canvas .

‘I’m addicted to chemicals,’ Jeannette Unite archly quips as she waves her arm in the direction of her store of minerals, ores, dusts and other detritus of the process of industrialised mining in South Africa. But these are clearly not mind-altering substances. Rather they are the results and by-products of altering the landscape in our never-ending desire for ever more of the earth’s subterranean bounty.

As an artist who has been known for her powerful abstract paintings for over two decades, Unite has recently made a daring and arresting venture into more representational work. Ever the innovator and experimenter, she has produced art in media as diverse as video, glass and etching alongside painting and drawing. Unite has frequently been compared to a chemist or alchemist, bringing her considerable knowledge of physics, geology, chemistry and history to bear in making her work.

Her research does not end in the archive or her lab-studio, however. She believes in ‘getting on the road’, going to the sites which she references in her work; from these she draws the physical materials so important for her physical work.

The technical and theoretical knowledge that informs her process of production has usually manifested in art that is firmly located in the exploration of abstraction and geometry. Contrast, tension, line, tone and colour are all orchestrated together to convey Unite’s uncompromising attitude to her subject and her ceaseless love of beauty, even in the face of degradation and exploitation.

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Artist's Statement

‘For the past decade I have been researching and exploring the geographical and geological history of Africa’s Industrial and mining sites and how the impact of colonialism and globalization affects how we occupy our current landscape.

I have accumulated a photographic and video archive in response to the industrial landscape, culled from journeys to Namaqualand Simon van der Stel’s copper mine, the first colonial mine in 1685, to small town mining museums. I visit archaeological as well as obsolete and working mines, harbours and construction sites.

Size does count. The Mining Headgear drawings are as large as construction boards and require ladders and scaffolding to execute. These massive, monumental drawings mirror the impressive scale and inadvertently celebrate heavy industry. I allow my sensualist appetite for abstraction to be impressed with scale and uniqueness of each engineer’s design.
Blast furnaces, harbour cranes, electric pylons and headgears dance and stagger across cotton fibre paper in etching, charcoal and my own, artist-made pastels that incorporate gold mine dust, metal oxides and mine dump tailings. I draw and etch for love of the expressive possibilities in mark and gesture.

I am compelled by a… physicalist viscerally connected to material and its alchemical and aesthetic possibilities. When I started working with glass, my bedtime reading became the periodic table which yielded exciting secrets about chemical colour reactions in the hot glass, enhancing the visual sense behind using ecologically inspired recycled industrial waste. I make eco-alchemic glass, use a collection of site specific sands and metal oxides in artist’s emulsion to create landscapes made of the landscape’

What others have said

South Africa’s rich and contentious mining histories provide the point of departure for Jeannette Unite’s work on the level of both the material and metaphor over the past decade.

Closely aligned with environmentally conscious art production, Unite’s body of work is site-specific in the sense that she has employed diamondiferous materials, minerals, metal oxides and sands from various significant sites in the production of her work, including making her own pastels with these materials. Toying with the traditional understanding of “value”, Unite has perpetrated her own brand of alchemy.

For a project that began as an identification of wounds that don’t heal (“mining” as a reflection of a personal journey, nor unlike Freud’s parallel between psychoanalysis and archaeology, perhaps), the dense metaphorical possibilities contained in Unite’s geological materials have resulted in a slightly different take on the memory-history-landscape genre.’

Kathryn Smith, Mail & Guardian

‘The artist’s sustained focus on the world of mining, however, is more than purely metaphor: Unite collects leftover minerals, sometimes toxic, that she literally embeds into some of her artwork. To this end, her Cape Town studio has several shelves of neatly stacked glass jars holding mining minerals of various colour and character.’

Kim Gurney, ‘Visual Prospects: the art of Jeannette Unite’


Unite is currently exhibiting ‘Headgear’ as the launch exhibition of Christopher Till’s new Turbine Hall space in central Johannesburg. This large, bold series of drawings fits perfectly into this space, itself so suitably resonant with the industrial history of the city. Showing the headgear that sit atop mineshafts that may stretch down into the earth for kilometres, these works are a departure from her characteristic use of abstraction in her art. Unite draws on an extensive archive of mining photography compiled during a decade of research, often manipulating these in her process. Nonetheless, her works are easily legible as the landmarks that dot the landscapes Witwatersrand and elsewhere. In formal terms it could be argued that this latest series is less a move away from abstraction than an extension of Unite’s longstanding fascination with geometry.

Before that

Having frequently incorporated materials taken directly from mines in her work, even making her own mineral and ore-laden pastels and crayons, Unite began to physically explore the properties and potentialities of the waste material from the mining industry. This led to experiments where she heated these substances to the point where they became glass. As with all her projects Unite embarked upon a research programme where she had to develop an exceptional understanding of the physics of materials as well as their chemistry and temperature phases.

Through techniques she developed and learned she was able to produce astounding and unexpected colours, and visual textures. Thus by juxtaposing different minerals together she was able to make paintings in glass, sourced from the discarded by-products of South African Industry. This fragile, brittle and beautiful material and the volatile processes that give it birth can be seen as a restitution of the integrity to the substance that was harvested from the ground. This manifested in ‘Hot Earth’ in 2007 where copper samples from Namaqualand were incorporated into the glass panels.

And before that

In the artist’s own words ‘Earthscars’ was a ‘breakthrough exhibition’. Unite, through a personal relationship with a geologist, was exposed to the effect that mining had on the landscape, specifically alluvial diamond diggings in Palaeolithic West Coast beaches.

She was shocked at the way the landscape was disfigured by the extraction of minerals, and began the archival research into the history, science and technology of mining that has informed her work ever since.

These interests manifested in a critically acclaimed and extensively travelled show where the artist interrogated the levels of trauma enacted upon both the land and those who work in and below it. ‘Earthscars’ thus inaugurated the period of work that focuses on industry and mining, a conceptual thread that persists in her work to the present day. It also marked a decisive shift way from more sensuous and lyrical abstraction to an intense and more visceral style.

And even before that

Jeannette Unite frequently works with series of interrelated works. In ‘Sentences’ (2001) she presented sequences of seven paintings that lead from one to the other, creating a ‘visual sentence’ that becomes linked through line, colour and the bodily actions of the artist who uttered it. In some ways these strips are reminiscent of frames of motion picture film, each panel a fragment of a greater whole that cannot be fully understood all at once. This led to the production of actual animated movies where her work is manipulated both digitally and physically.

Perhaps these works give the viewer an idea of the lyricism, energy and even passion that goes into the production of paintings. One of her animations, designed to be accompany The Blue Danube by Strauss was projected behind a full orchestra before 3500 people on a three story screen as part of New Years concert in Helsinki.

Next up

Unite is publishing a series of large format etchings of the mining 'Headgears'. The headgear drawings and etchings will be exhibited at various museums, including Oliewenhuys, William Humphreys Gallery, Grahamstown Festival and Gold of Africa Museum in Cape Town. Unite has plans to travel into Africa to expand the scope of the research on the extractive industry.

Curriculum Vitae


Selected Group Exhibitions and Projects

2009 ‘Fragile Earth”, Monteverde Italy
2007 ‘Visions of Africa’, Pretoria Art Museum
2006 ‘HERM - Boundaries Between Wild and Cultivate’, Ann Bryant East London
2005 ‘Portraits’, Scarlett Greyton
2005 ‘Gunfree SA’, Constitution Hill Auction
2004 ‘Surfacing’ with Lynne Lomofsky, Unite Studio Gallery, CT
2004 ‘On The Wall’, Earls Court, London
2004 Clementina’s Art Gallery, Kalkbay, CT
2003 ‘S.U.M. A Bag Factory Residency Exhibition’, Fordsburg Artists Studios, JHB
2002 ‘NSPCC’, Old Mutual HQ, London
2002 SA Today Signature Artist Fair Centre, Helsinki
2001 Red Cross Fundraiser Heart For Art, The Foundary, CT
2000 ‘Absolut Secret’, AVA
2000 ‘Artichoke Multimedia Event’, Sandton Civic, JHB
1999 ‘Softserve’ Multi-Media Event, National Gallery, CT
1999  Inauguration Exhibition, S.A Libraries
1999 ‘Absolut Vodka’, AVA
1999 ‘Paper Prayers’, Hardground’s Traveling Show
1999 ‘Celebrating Power Of Women’, Baxter Theatre Gallery
1994 ‘Musee D’art Contemp Internationale’, Franc Print Trienniale
1993 ‘Aids Awareness’, Association Of Arts, CT
1993 ‘Brides’, Irma Stern Museum, UCT
1993 ‘South Africa In Black And White’, S.A National Gallery
1992 ‘Flash Of The Spirit’, Baxter Theatre Gallery
1992 ‘Art Now’, Association of Arts, CT
1990 ‘Critics' Choice’, Association Of Arts
1989 Red Cross Charity Ceramics Exhibition

Solo Exhibitions

2009 ‘Headgear’, Turbine Hall, Anglo Gold of Africa Museum Gallery, JHB
2008 ‘Remembering the Future’, South African National Archives, Roeland Street, Cape Town
2007 ‘Hot Earth’ - Namakwaland Copper, Thompson Gallery, Johannesburg    
2004 ‘Earthscars: A Visual Mining Exploration’, Diamonds Gallery, 157 Jan Smuts Ave,      Johannesburg; William Humphreys Gallery, Kimberley; Mozambique National Gallery; Irma      Stern Museum Gallery, UCT;
2002 ‘Sentences’, Zebra Two, London                    
2001 ‘Sentences’, Bell-Roberts Contemporary Gallery, Cape Town
1999 ‘Thresholds’, Irma Stern Museum, UCT               
1995 ‘Recent Works’, Chelsea Gallery, Cape Town  
1995 ‘Abstracts, AVA Association of Visual Arts, Cape Town
1993 ‘Recent Works’, AVA Association of Visual Arts, Cape Town
1990 ‘Sensuous Images’, Wandel Street Gallery, Cape Town                 

Art Films

‘SENTENCES’ an art animation that was part of the same exhibition. 8 minutes
‘BLUE DANUBE’ an art animation for live orchestra Helsinki concert. 10 minutes
‘EARTHSCARS’ currently in production.


1981 Kellogg’s Young Artists Exhibition Award Winner
2006 Public Art Award Department Science and Technology, CSIR Buildings, Tshwane

Represented in

Anglo - KUMBA
Clifford Chance    
Isqithi HQ
Old Mutual Place
University Cape Town Chemical Engineering
Department of Science and Technology CSIR Building
William Humphreys Public Art Museum, Kimberley