The massive scale of industrial mining on the African continent has, for the past several hundred years, yielded untold riches of natural resources while also leaving permanent scars on the landscapes (the deep recesses of the Kimberley Diamond Crater in South Africa, for instance). Whereas once the mysteries of the underground may have appeared limitless and suggestive of the powers of the ancestors, spirits, and divine, industrial mining turned them inside out and upside down. Increasingly, the underground has come to symbolize histories buried and resources lost.
Earth Matters explores how artists have dealt with this (literal) upheaval in great detail within the exhibition section, and book chapter, “Imagining the Underground.” The scars of mining are ecological as well as ideological. The massive toll of mining has taken on the environment and the people who live in it is only beginning to be understood. The shear force of this change can be seen in this photograph by Eliot Eliofson, taken in 1959 in Nigeria at the Amalgamated Tin Mines of Nigeria, Ltd. Elisofson takes the viewer into the action as massive amounts of water pour through an artificial mining sluice used to draw out tin and columbite. At its peak in 1943, these mines on the Jos Plateau were producing over 15,000 tons of tin annually. The effect on the environment is becoming increasingly apparent, but has had lasting impacts.
African artists have not observed such degradation passively. Many have actively engaged with ideas of worldwide climate change, seek to protect the environment, and endeavor to bring awareness to their viewers. Photographer David Goldblatt has tracked environmental change due to mining and dumping in his native South Africa, as well as elsewhere. His shocking image of blue asbestos fibers littering the ground, tailings dumped as byproducts is included in Earth Matters, is disturbing both for its beauty and its subject matter. Like Kentridge, George Osodi has created striking visual images but his photographs focus on the human consequences of mining. His unforgettable photograph, De Money series no. 1, depicts miners working under precarious circumstances at an illegal gold mine in Ghana.
The performance artist Nathalie Mba Bikoro makes the effects of mining deeply personal in her spellbinding performance The Uncomfortable Truth. In her performance at the National Museum of African Art (click on tab above to watch a video recording), Bikoro covered herself in gold leaf and dust, reminiscent of Osodiʼs image, while a screen behind her projected the names of her own family members who have been killed or gone missing as a result of violence and economic inequity in her native Gabon. Bikoro indeed reveals an uncomfortable truth: not only does the earth matter, people matter.