First things first: if you are going to buy this book, I strongly suggest you purchase the limited edition black boxed special. Not only is the packaging itself an artwork, but it also does a good job of making an event out of an art book. Jeanette herself was quite chuffed with the packaging and the black edges of the book itself. ‘Don’t you think it’s sexy?’, she asked, as we sat down to lunch. I thought it was dead sexy. This is a ‘black book’ in the truest sense of the term.
Before an artwork can be considered truly great or indeed a masterpiece it needs to tick several boxes, so to speak. And many of the criteria are contradictory. For example, it must be personal but also time universal, serious but not without a certain irony: the kind that is impossible to create artificially, that is so central to the meaning that both the artist and the art would be nothing without it. On both these counts and all the others, Jeanette succeeds.
The subject matter is the public face and spaces of the mining industry in Africa. The mines and machines of Residuum, her latest work to be exhibited, tell the story from the ground up. Moving deeper, her sculptures and the Overburden series allow the landscape and indeed the minerals themselves to have their say. The artist’s unique use of mining materials and residues in her work is not only an achievement in the alchemical sense, of turning trash into treasure, but it is also cause for reflection itself.
When asked about whether her work is a glorification or a condemnation of the mining industry, Jeanette is defiantly Zen: ‘I think I’m ambivalent.’ Her reasons are quite simple but they are revealing.
In her own words she describes herself as an ‘end user’ of mining products: ‘I own a laptop, I travel on airplanes’. In this sense, all of us are complicit in the system. But she takes it further: her art itself would not exist were it not for the miners.
By publishing her work in a book, she is taking another bold step, but one that is entirely necessary.
Fine art has long been regarded as elitist and aloof. It can comment on the masses but not connect with them. But hers is a work that needs a mass audience. There is not a single person in this country and indeed the continent who can consider themselves immune to its appeal and message.
This edition is thorough documentation of a creative and personal journey that has been more than 20 years in the making. The artworks are accompanied both by essays and the artist’s own notes and the photographs from which she works, offering both precious insight into matters of subject and technique. Art is easy to appreciate and understand on an instinctual level. The beauty of a painting is something we all understand, and though hers are beautiful indeed, the feelings they provoke are sometimes hard to put a finger on. I found myself quite unsettled by the towering presence of ‘Six – meters under’, something which Jeanette’s essay helped me resolve. There is just so much going on in there the essay is truly is a godsend. And we are in good hands here, with contribution from several artists and academics.
I earlier referred to several criteria that an artwork must meet. The hardest of these to achieve – being in the right place at the right time – is the most vital. Some people believe that there is no stopping an idea whose time has come. But there is something almost providential about the timely nature of this work. In the aftermath of a tragedy like the one at Marikana, there is an inevitable drawing of lines and taking of sides, both of which seek to come to a conclusion. We want answers, but we want them from our point of view. The truth is about Lonmin is something we all seek, but few are willing to accept it. Things are simply more complex than at first glance. We need to sit back and meditate and mediate if we are to move forward.
Here it is that art comes to the rescue, in the most troubled of times. Jeanette is no stranger to personal tragedy, which became an inspiration, indeed the driving force, behind this work. What is wrong can never be right, but acceptance is only way forward. It is thus that we can go from negative into positive. Art may never change the world but it can definitely change attitudes.
This brings me on to another tragedy, made clear by the events at the Goodman gallery earlier this year.
We have too long neglected and rejected our artists. The lack of value we place on art as a method of social cohesion may be a legacy of apartheid. But how much longer can we continue this legacy? Forget maths and science, art education should be mandatory in all schools. It teaches us more about life than all the other subjects combined.
Whatever the case, I feel that we have reached a new epoch in South African culture and Jeanette Unite has emerged as one of the new stars. She is every bit as hip and relevant as Die Antwoord, and a damn side more authentic too.
If you can afford this book, buy it, and if you can’t we have a copy at the Amandla! Resource Centre you can borrow.
By Steve Adams