EXCAVATION: An archive of 1500 images about the history of mining has been installed by Jeanette Unite at the Michaelis Upper Gallery. PICTURE BY JOHN HARRIS

JEANNETTE UNITE is an epic artist. If she is not exploring the visual residues of colonial exploitation or attending a Cultural Development Conference in Ghana presenting “Terra: Eco-Alchemy and the African Industrial Landscape”, she is visiting mines, archaeological sites or meeting artists sharing pastel-and-paint recipes in Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Zambia, Botswana and Nigeria and West Africa.

And she was deservedly one of four South African artists invited to the Beijing Biennale. A prolific and highly respected independent visual artist based in Cape Town, for the past decade she has been meticulously exploring Africa’s industrial landscape.

She is intuitively drawn to excavate her source materials as she fascinatingly gathers minerals, mine dump waste and site-specific sands integral to her process of making her own pastels and paint.

Even her glass artworks contain molten industrial waste and actual metalliferous and diamondiferous material from her travels so her landscape artworks are indeed made from the land itself.

“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,” explained the artist.

For the past decade, Unite says, she has been researching and exploring the geographical and geological history of Africa’s industrial and mining sites and how the impact of colonialism and globalisation 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 Simon van der Stel’s copper mine in Namaqualand, 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.”

Unite has visited archives, libraries and museums in mining areas, exploring the issues related to mineral extraction, wars and conflict, migrant labour, the resource curse and the impact of neo-colonialism on the contemporary African industrial landscape. With 2011 seeing the 125th anniversary of the discovery of gold in Johannesburg, Unite’s new body of work in Paradox of Plenty astutely reflects on how this discovery has shaped the social-political history of South Africa, with particular bearing on the South African War. Unsurprisingly the curator of the Harare National Gallery, Raphael Chikukwa, hails Unite as a “story-teller, thinker, archivist, environmental activist, political commentator, teacher and a cultural historian making a unique contribution to the post-colonial discourse through her particular use of materials that define locality”.

Unite explains her fascination in drawing mine headgear constructions. “They are strange anthropomorphic structures that have become the iconic symbol for mining. I have been compelled to document and draw these in multiples to capture this as a memory to our changing landscape.”

The artist in her typically charming cheeky style once suggested to some engineers who design these that they are all different because engineers are showing off. “Perhaps unique design configurations are a form of expression or the variety reveals a ‘mine is bigger than yours’ for industry players in a competitive environment in which most things are of a scale that daunts human proportion,” smiles Unite. She said that they actually agreed but said that different conditions require different solutions.

They responded positively to her massive headgear drawings in spite of their observation that her renditions are interpretations and distortions that wouldn’t stand up in reality.

“But then it’s never been my intention to compete with engineers – just to transmute and interpret the forms to exaggerate issues like the drilling and penetration of earth.”

Unite acknowledges Congolese artist Sammy Baloji who uses photo-montages of historical colonial images combined with current photographs of the Gecamines that are haunting reflections of neo-colonial resource extraction. Artists and photographers in South Africa, including William Kentridge, Sam Nglengethwa, Pat Mautloa, David Goldblatt and David Koloane, also reflect on the resource extraction industry and how this has shaped the cultural identity of South Africans.

Unite has now effectively and most successfully converted the Michaelis Upper Gallery into an open studio which is open to the public until Monday, allowing a rare glimpse into her working methods and a chance to engage with this arresting artist.

She has amassed an impressive installation, an archive of a staggering 1 500 images about the history of mining.

During this month she has, also in this space, produced a fresh new series of composite, collaged drawings titled Paradox of Plenty for exhibit in the same gallery from March 29 until April 7.

Paradox of Plenty creates a valid comment on the environmental impact of the conspicuous consumption of finite metal resources that underpins the techno-spasm we live in.

Unite equally explores aspects of the resource curse and the world- wide phenomena of extreme poverty and the extreme wealth associated with resource extraction. Interestingly the Cape Town art school is named after gold mining magnate Sir Max Michaelis, a pertinent link between the Johannesburg mining industry and Michaelis’s consequent patronage of the art school.

l See the exhibition at the Michaelis Upper Gallery from March 29 at 6pm to April 7. A limited edition series of signed, embossed Headgear prints to commemorate 125 years of discovery of gold are available. Unite’s open studio is on until Monday, open between 11am and 4pm with an archive of 1 500 images in the Michaelis Upper Gallery, Michaelis School of Fine Art, 32-37 Orange Street, Gardens. Call Nadja at 021 480 7170, or e-mail [email protected]