‘What is yours is mined’ on the heels of the Mining Indaba

Painte Jeannette Unite uses various minerals materials to create the paint used in her work.

Painte Jeannette Unite uses various minerals materials to create the paint used in her work.

Published Feb 8, 2024


As President Thabo Mbeki pondered his fate and obliged to step down as president in 2008, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s sister-in-law, Bridgette Radebe, stood in the midst of mining-related artworks in a conspicuous blue house on Buitenkant Street in Cape Town, trying to explain to the artist what the “resource curse” was.

“Wherever there is a rich deposit of minerals, like platinum, the people who live above it are poor. That is the resource curse,” said Radebe at the time, before she dashed into one of the cluttered storerooms in Jeannette Unite’s studio to attend to hushed calls on the then-president’s pending resignation at the time.

That was almost 20 years ago. Today, the International Convention Centre in Cape Town is bustling with delegates at the week-long 2024 Mining Indaba.

At the same time there is a mining art exhibition in the far-flung hills of Durbanville, titled What is Yours is Mined, by painter Jeannette Unite, at the Rust-en-Vrede and Clay Museum. I attended this triple exhibition opening, which featured Unite’s paintings, Veronica Reid and the Atlas Group last month.

In my mind this exhibition would’ve worked much better in the foyer of the ICC during the course of this week, but the artists seemed nonchalant to my suggestion. Been there. Done that. At one point Jeannette Unite was considered the Mining Artist due to her prolific mining materials-based paintings. From “Earthscars” to “What is yours is mined” she remained consistent in her messaging around mining.

“South Africa has 87% of the world’s chrome. We have a unique known quantity of this stuff! How on earth are we not then controlling the market? South Africa should be controlling the market. We also have a problem with the steel index that prices us too low,” says Unite as I fast realise that this interview will not be about the aesthetics of her work but rather it will drill down to the core of why she actually uses mining material in the paint that she makes.

We are seated in the same room in which Bridgette Radebe made her “resource curse” comments years ago.

As I look around I observe a lot of clutter. Some damaged artworks, works-in-progress and an overabundance of little jars filled with various substances ranging from diamond gravel from the Big Hole to titanium, copper, chromate, obsidian glass, tungsten carbide and calcium carbonate, to name a few.

She uses these to make her own paint, a skill she was taught by the revered late Michaelis School of Fine Art Professor Kevin Atkinson. The same Professor Atkinson who taught Marlene Duma, Randy Hartzenberg and quite a number of other artists I consider to be amazing.

Professor Atkinson made sure that students who had no opportunities or materials were able to get into Michaelis and also learn how to make their own materials, such as paint.

He had met Marcel Duchamp and even spent a week with Joseph Boyce.

A professor that thought big and produced some of the best artists this country has to offer.

Jeannette Unite graduated with a Diploma in Fine Art from Michaelis in 1985 and went on to teach at the Frank Joubert Art Centre for a solid 10 years.

It was when she met and fell in love with a diamond mine geologist on the Orange River. They nearly got married. But didn’t. What she got out of that relationship was her love for mining materials.

“I am the worst, I use these mining materials in a much more intense way than the ordinary consumer that uses it without any knowledge that it all comes from mining.

“Every single thing, even your clothing, the food we eat is made with a machine that is made with a diamond,” says Unite, whose exhibition at Rust-en-Vrede is split into two themes; one on the geo-seams (bushveld complexes) and barcodes.

“In the barcodes series I talk about consumption and complicity. And in the second series titled ‘Paradox of Plenty’ I go back to the ‘resource curse’.”

The paintings are quite large and beautiful to actually look at. Knowing that the acrylic on the canvas is composed of various mine-land minerals you begin to really appreciate the skill and craft that went into producing these pieces.

The work is on show at Rust-en-Vrede until February 17.

Also on show are Veronica Reid’s paintings. In a small room behind the What is yours is mined exhibition there is also the Atlas group exhibition which features works by Caitlin Mkhasibe, Bongi Bengu, Hans Viljoen, Zander Evergreen, Theophilus Rhikotso, Pwavidon Mathias, Lonwabo Kilani, Jeannette Unite, Jeff Allan, Helen Harris, Nicky Marais, Twin Mosia, Natasja de Wet, Emma Willemse, Ydi Coetsee-Carstens, Annelie Venter and Monique Day-Wilde.

With art I can only say: Go and see it for yourself, my words alone cannot paint what these artists have done. Outstanding work all-round.

Cape Times