PLOT: Critical Zones

South African Museum

An exhibition by mining and Earth artist Jeannette Unite at the Iziko South African Museum

PLOT: Critical Zones, a trans-disciplinary exhibition at the Iziko South African Museum, showcases artworks by mining and Earth artist, Jeannette Unite. The exhibition is a manifestation of the artist’s research across more than 30 countries on how Earth is owned, measured, divided, allocated by title deeds, and legal rights over land and resources. Her artistic, archival, and on-the-ground research addresses the question of why Earth matters and interrogates human beings’ relationship with minerals that are at the heart of mining, industrialisation, manufacture, and consumption.

Installation shot of PLOT: Critical Zones at the ISAM, 2022. Photograph: Nigel Pamplin © Iziko Museums of South Africa.

In today’s climate crisis, the life sustaining layer between the treetops and the groundwater that encircles Earth – the Critical Zone – is in peril. Earth stewardship, a core message of the exhibition, highlights that humanity has just enough time to act. Scientists warn of fossil fuel dependence along with drastic weather phenomena. Ice sheets are falling in the Antarctica, organisms keeping our soil and in turn, our food healthy are obliterated. Medications and chemical combinations that we consume end up in the ocean and rivers. These eventually end up in our fish, our soil and our food.

Unite has focused on Africa’s rich and contentious mineral histories and the ways humans exploit Earth. The plethora of minerals that are the ingredients of the manufactured goods in our contemporary lives is an essential subject of Unite’s artworks. This highly personalised body of work incorporate elements of the land, and her bar-code geo-seam mineral paintings are installed as a continuous lode. Her mining artworks are made from the very mined material they interrogate. The works exhibited include the use of detritus and materials sourced from site specific industrial mining sites that are considered contentious within the fragile human-environment relationship. The material is thus both subject and object in her predominantly large-scale art pieces.

Installation shot of PLOT: Critical Zones at the ISAM, 2022. Photograph: Nigel Pamplin © Iziko Museums of South Africa.

Unite revisits the tradition of landscape painting as a response to ecological crises and contemporary understandings of materiality, critiquing the force of human compulsion for material goods regardless of environmental and social consequences. The exhibition details the artist’s collection and interpretation of images and minerals from the mining industry. She collaborates with geo-chemists, paint chemists and a ceramicist to develop her own paint and pastel recipes. Site-specific sands, oxides, metal salts and residues soiled with history and loaded with meaning are mixed into the paints that create these works.

Her palette, organised in a unique periodic table, consists of jars filled with mined matter; both the precious ores used in industry and the slimes dams and tailing dumps she has collected from travels to remote extraction areas in 32 countries. Unite’s direct use of mined matter underpins her research-based practice which dwells on the ongoing role of mining in (re)producing colonial power relations. 

Installation shot of PLOT: Critical Zones at the ISAM, 2022. Photograph: Nigel Pamplin © Iziko Museums of South Africa.

PLOT: Critical Zones refers to the exploitation of natural resources regardless of the irreparable damage that results. It explores the cryptic contentious role the law plays in the distribution of land rights and the appropriation and damage of land. The exhibition calls for collective Earth Stewardship inciting collective response before it’s too late.

PLOT: Critical Zones is on exhibition at the Iziko South African Museum, open daily from 09h00 until 17h00, excluding Workers’ and Christmas Day.


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