ON THE MINES
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 a 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 are included in the exhibition, showcasing the Witwatersrand gold mines and surrounding communities. Engaged 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 Nadine Gordimer, who Goldblatt had deliberately sought out because of her similar experience of growing up on the East Rand of Gauteng surrounded by mines. Goldblatt appreciated Gordimer’s critical understanding of this context, including the hegemony that shaped people’s lives. 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.