Artist Jeannette Unite mines the earth for visual themes
Unite’s fascination extends from enormous machinery to stock market, writes Lucinda Jolly
Jeannette Unite, or The Mining Artist as she is sometimes called, places three glass-stoppered bottles on a once-grand 19th-century dining room table now laden with a well-stocked tarnished silver drinks tray and piles of paper and books.
There’s a whiff of the theatrical in the air of her studio. She nudges one bottle in my direction, makes eye contact and incants its name.
This is repeated twice, with other bottles. There is something shamanic about the ritual, especially given that she is dressed in billowing black.
The bottles contain blue-grey shards (Kimberlite volcanic rock), fine grey sand and little blue pellets (crushed diamond ore) from volcanic pipes in the Kimberley Big Hole.
Unite points to the second one. "It could contain a diamond," she says with a challenging look. She’s had it for 14 years but hasn’t bothered to find out if there is a gem inside.
This says something about her relationship to mining — she’s not interested in the spoils.
Her first visit to a mine, the Rossing Uranium Mine 70km from Swakopmund, was when she was 18 years old. She was "blown away" by the size of the machines — "industrial scale on steroids" — used to carve up the landscape.
It would be many more years before she was lit by all things mining. In her early career Unite produced abstract work, often panels with lines and flat areas of blood-reds. It was private and personal work. Abstraction is a form of concealing, she says.
For the past 20 years Unite’s work has revealed her discoveries about mining and its place in society. She is passionate about it.
Her current exhibition, Complicit Geographies, The Mineral Revolution, has won a Department of Arts and Culture award.
She obtained a master’s degree cum laude from the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art. She was invited to be the earth mining artist for the 35th International Geology Congress in 2016. Her paintings are found on the walls of architects, mining captains, banks and museums.
Unite doesn’t use conventional paints. Instead she paints with the discarded byproducts and deposits found around platinum, diamond, gold, copper, zinc, zirconium, iron and coal mines. She also uses chalk and kaolin from quarries. These materials are mixed into a stabilising archival polymer acrylic to form a pigment.
Her exploration of the various layers of mining and her interpretation of the industry through visual language has attracted both criticism and regard. She has faced racist and sexist criticism from a group of black academics who wanted to know why a white woman was interested in mining. From other quarters she has been accused of being sycophantic to mining.
But Unite retains an ongoing fascination with all things mining — from the enormous machinery to the intersection between minerals and the stock market, and how every part of contemporary existence is indebted to mining.
"I love mining," she says. "I’m fascinated by the machinery, the gargantuan size. But I’m not hesitant to talk truth to power."
She is fully aware that "the meek shall inherit the earth but not its mining rights".
She cites the publication of her first book, Terra (published in 2012), as a passport to the mining world. After people in the industry had read it, she was taken seriously.
Her latest expedition is to the manganese mines in Hotazel, Northern Cape. Manganese is crucial in the production of stainless steel.
Her second introduction to the industry, the one that started her fascination with mining, was through a romantic attachment in the 1990s. She was engaged to a geologist who was working on diamond mines.
Unite was fascinated by the discrepancy of the landscapes at the Orange River mouth. On one bank was an estuary with pelicans and flamingos and on the opposite bank a huge man-made mountain with a 12m-high electric fence.
Like many people, Unite had regarded herself slightly superior to miners.
Then came her lightbulb moment — the recognition that titanium, an ingredient in oil paint, is sourced from the same area as diamonds. This led to an understanding that she was complicit in mining.
"Diamonds are involved in everything. A diamond is intrinsic to our daily world," she says.
Before she left the Orange River mouth, Unite took many rolls of analogue photographs of everything she found fascinating — from sample bags and maps to machines being built and those in the throes of decay. The first iteration of her exhibition, Earthscars: A Visual Mining Exploration, in 2004 was critical of mining and focused on the environment. At that stage she was "grumpy" with mining. On her walks at the Orange River mouth she had been shocked to see mining’s effect on the landscape. The scarring echoed her personal life.
Her second exhibition, also called Earthscars: A Visual Mining Exploration, illustrated her shift in attitude after she had been shown a mining rehabilitation plant.
Unite made a curious trip to Britain in 2014-15. Armed with a Roman map of British mines, a book by canal engineer and first geologist William "Strata" Smith published 230 years ago — "at the time when God was being pushed out of the landscape by science" — and a geological app, she drove more than 16,000km across England to attempt to understand the earth.
One of her new exhibitions, already launched in Romania, is entitled Measuring Modernity. It is made up of square images measuring 30cm by 30cm representing the metric foot.
Before the French Revolution, the country’s units of measurement were based on ancient Roman measures, Unite says. They were also anthropocentric and theocentric as they were based on the human body — often a ruler’s body. They used pied du Roi (the king’s foot), for example, because the king was considered a divine emissary of God on Earth. After the revolution there was a call for a universal measure.
Her other planned shows include ERF/ PLOT. This body of work is a grid installation illustrating land legislation.
It references the maps and drawings originally used as teaching aids at the Department of Earth Sciences at Oxford University.
She is also creating a list of who owns all the mines in Africa for a multipanelled artwork with the working title Who Owns Africa. She has identified about 750 of the more than 6,000 mines across the continent.
Unite is completing her second book, Complicit Geographies, in which she hopes to show "global cycles of extraction, manufacture, consumption and waste".
Unite’s mining activism echoes through her work. Her current exhibition’s title is based on the realisation that there has never been an industrial revolution in Africa, but there has been a mineral revolution instead.
Complicit Geographies, The Mineral Revolution is on in the Old Guard Rooms of the Western Cape Archives, Roeland Street, Cape Town.