The images documenting the strikes and the tragedy that followed at Marikana were subject to an intense form of scrutiny. Initially this was for pragmatic reasons; via mediated photographic and filmed footage, supplemented and supported by textual accounts, that appeared in the mainstream press or the internet, the majority were able to grasp the tragic events that unfurled at the Lonmin mine near Rustenburg.
As we studied these images, and new images emerged that called into question the police’s conduct and ethics, our gaze intensified as we searched for new evidence or suppressed facts they might contain.
There was a sense that these images were clues to greater truths beyond the visual realm. This had something to do with the fact that the events were quickly read as symbolic not only of a growing discontent among an exploited and impoverished proletariat, but with Cyril Ramaphosa, aligned to Lonmin, the employers, it evoked the perceived betrayal of the struggle ideals by the country’s new elite.
Our ugly past reverberated through the police’s brutality and the violent actions of the miners. As we surveyed the scenes on this rural landscape, we were, are – the Marikana Commission of Inquiry has yet to be completed – transfixed by the possibility that they function as a window to our past, present and future.
In other words, our gaze is driven by a desire to see beyond, through and around what these images present.
Mary Wafer, more or less, attempts to perform this act in her exhibition Mine. Largely, Wafer works from existing representations documenting events around the massacre and the site itself, though it is stated that she visited it too, perhaps in an effort to reconcile the place with depictions of it.
Through painting she assumes to navigate or generate other kinds of visual representations, where the cold, hard facts, the straight edges of the journalistic mode, have been upturned in favour of a semi-abstract language. It is not complete abstraction; you can still identify the dark figures of the miners crowded together on the koppie in the Crowd series. In fact, in the monochromatic rendering titled Crowd I, the dark silhouettes of seated miners is the only motif on the canvas.
In this way the eponymous crowd of miners are not only the focus but, through them, a landscape is suggested – the rise of the koppie is read through their configuration. This works at fusing the land with the people in such a way that they seem inseparable, which obviously evokes all sorts of politics connected to the land that are inevitable in any rendering of our rural topography.
This may not have been Wafer’s intention but the result of her approach, which is not defined by abstraction per se but an oversimplification or reduction of the forms that presumably enables getting “inside” the image by paring it down to its essence. This requires jettisoning all the details and subverting the journalistic mode, which relies on and is rooted in the specifics. Her approach implies that the details can obscure the facts; the reality they represent can only be penetrated by looking beyond the surface and seeing what lies beneath it.
It is interesting that Wafer has assumed this approach – and this subject-matter. My experience of her work, which is admittedly limited, has led me to believe that she is interested in the details of the banal, overlooked scenes, though she seems to have always been compelled to reduce forms.
In some ways this has been the charm of her work; though she captures public, familiar settings – usually architectural or public infrastructural entities – there is a sense that intimate, personal narratives tied to her work are withheld… perhaps she simply creates the room for us to project our own histories.
With the paintings in this show, she reduces forms substantially and eschews the personal, the pedestrian, in favour of a monumental event we collectively “own”, so to speak.
Not that there is a sense of monumentality to these paintings; if you had no knowledge that they are linked to the events at Marikana, they could be perceived as nondescript semi-abstract landscapes.
Underplaying these scenes is, surprisingly, what makes them so powerful – and refreshing.
This approach has ensured that she doesn’t oversentimentalise or overdramatise the events at Marikana to the point that they read as the theatre of the abject – a trap that photographers almost always fall into.
As a result these images of Marikana do not facilitate a glib relationship with the subjects from a distance in the white cube in that awful bourgeois manner. In fact these images don’t make you feel uncomfortable in the least; you can look without the burden of voyeurism.
In this drive to get beyond the surface of the events (and their representations), she doesn’t want us to get caught up in the dynamics around identity and the obvious us/them dichotomies that are tied to this massacre.
And while she appears to be|directing us towards the underlying drivers underpinning Marikana and what they signify, it is not so much that she delivers us at a place where we suddenly have great insight into the mechanics, instead she confronts you with the conflicted emotional residue it elicits; an intense sense of horror and outrage and disconnection, detachment.
This may only be a consequence of close observation from a distance - a paradox in itself - through mediated channels. This idea is best illustrated by juxtaposing images from the Aerial and Rock series, that chart views of the site from above and the landscape from ground level respectively.
Paintings of the former embody the intense scrutiny the site was subject to, though paradoxically, this bird’s eye view can only be enjoyed from a distance from which the events can only be read in the abstract.
In this way the closer we study the events, the further from our understanding they become; not only are the complexities revealed and we are presented with conflicting truths, but the immediate texture, if you can call it that, has been obviated.
The Rock series facilitates a different encounter. In Rock III or Rock I, the canvas is almost completely filled, evoking a claustrophobic ambience. Black motifs, the rocks, appear to be tumbling, the mountain seems unstable. It is as if the landscape is shifting; it reads like a tsunami, a tall wave that will fold over everything. The landscape holds and withholds memories, tragedies; there will be no trace left of the Marikana massacre, barring a few inconsequential alterations, but the site is invisibly contaminated by it. This wave also evokes the heightened anxiety the event produced that may have been a consequence of the intense observation it was subject to and its over-determination as a “sign of the times”. - published in The Sunday Independent, April 28.
- Mine is showing at the David Krut gallery in Parkview, Joburg, until May 18.