15 June – 8 August 2023
On display at the GFI Art Gallery on loan from the Norval Foundation
Written & curated by Karel Nel
Shown for the first time in Gqeberha at the GFI Art Gallery, the Norval Foundation’s collection – On the Mines by David Goldblatt is the last exhibition that David Goldblatt personally helped conceptualise before his death in 2018. Through this exhibition he is revealed as the great chronicler and documenter of South Africa: the quiet observer of how the country, its peoples, its institutions, and landscape have been inscribed by politics and power.
Eighty photographs will be included in the exhibition, showcasing the Witwatersrand gold mines and surrounding communities engage conceptually with mining’s pivotal significance as the driver of the South African economy in the 1960s and 1970s. As an astute and careful observer, both principled and compassionate, he strove to capture in sequences, shaft-sinking, stoping and other primary mining activities, as well as the particularities of those individuals at the rockface. He also captured dispassionately, but not uncritically, the individuals within the corporate stratifications that defined relations on the mines. His lens also documented the pathos of abandoned mines, from a barber’s chair to the grass sprouting alongside a disused steam hoist. Goldblatt’s earliest boyhood photographs of mining headgear and related structures were an intimation of how this subject would become a major theme in his viewing and thinking.
The series on exhibition was first published by Struik in 1973 with a telling text by the Nobel laureate, Nadine Gordimer, as Goldblatt recounted:
Nadine Gordimer had a part to play in the making of my Witwatersrand photographs long before I met her.
Her first book, Face to Face, which I read in 1950, made explicit to me, to the point of pungency, my own then vague awareness of my milieu. And over the years, as I sought expression in photography, her writing came to be peculiarly relevant: challenging, affirming, always extending my understanding of what we both so often seemed to find significant.
I started photographing the Witwatersrand in 1966 and by 1967 had done sufficient to feel that there was the possibility here of a worthwhile essay. In some trepidation I showed the photographs to Nadine Gordimer, with the suggestion that we might collaborate in exploring afresh our deep and abiding impressions. To my delight she responded warmly, feeling that we shared a certain vision that in my pictures and her words might attain a new dimension for both. (Struik, 1973)
Gordimer’s text, The Witwatersrand: a Time and Tailings, provides a personal, provocative and independent view of the significance of mining within South Africa. Its searing honesty probes the power, wealth and politics based on exploitation of black labour from across Africa. In a parallel way to Goldblatt, Gordimer captured the austerity of the buildings constructed around machinery needed to delve deep into the earth, and unexpected moments of beauty in the mastaba-like shapes of the mine dumps, with their two-day beard of blackjacks.
Gordimer’s text – read forty years later by Brenda Goldblatt, the photographer’s daughter – will be heard by viewers as a counterpoint to the photographs, as was originally intended in the book, On the Mines. This historical and significant exhibition will be on display from 15 June – 8 August 2023 at the GFI Art Gallery, 30 Park Drive, Gqeberha.
David Goldblatt, Mining landscape with compound and concession store, Benoni-Brakpan