The killing of 34 striking miners near the Lonmin platinum mine at Marikana in South Africa’s North West province in 2012 was the single biggest use of deadly force by the authorities against civilians since 1960’s Sharpeville massacre.
The tragedy was a depressingly familiar response of South Africa’s authorities to a perceived challenge to hegemonic power. It was, simultaneously, a disturbing new departure. That it occurred 18 years after the demise of apartheid set the country back ethically and politically.
The powerful clash of entrenched mining capital, race, labour and deadly violence embodied by the massacre has also been a point of interest to many South African artists.
South Africa has been visually imagined by many artists as a country being constantly dug up and penetrated, or, alternatively, emptied out to represent the beauty of a ‘terra nullius’.
The visual profile of the mining headgear and mine shaft is perhaps the most characteristic symbol of the tortured character of South Africa’s history. It is an allegory for the racialisation of space and capital and the forced removal of black people from the urban landscape and economic opportunity. In recent times, artists as disparate as William Kentridge and Steve McQueen have taken up the trope.
Outpouring of creativity
But it is Marikana which dominates recent South African memory. It has produced, in addition to much debate, many different aesthetic responses. The recent third anniversary of the massacre offers some useful perspective on how various responses to the tragedy can offer South Africans a different and more nuanced emotional perspective.
To say that art should be apolitical is often misguided. The work produced by South African artists in light of Marikana has in common with other socially and politically engaged art a revelatory and revolutionary commitment to change and democracy. It has this in common, for example, with the outpouring of creativity in response to the #BlackLivesMatter mobilisation campaign against racist police brutality in the US.
In this case, in a wider social movement involving many different kinds of activism, art played a central role in enabling people to understand and articulate their anger.
Hank Willis Thomas is a good example within the #BlackLivesMatter campaign. He deconstructs and re-contextualises the imagery of advertising and popular culture. This reveals how racism and capitalism work in concert to destroy black lives all over the world.
Three very different examples of South African artwork produced in response to the Marikana tragedy give us some insight as to the ways in which art can be used as both a tool for political conscientisation and a means to psychologically process traumatic events.
The ‘small koppie’
Soon after the massacre took place, photojournalist Greg Marinovich captured another way of envisioning South African post- or neo-colonial space. This was done in poignant photographs of the ‘Small Koppie’ (hill) killing field at the site.
Quasi-documentary photographs of empty and melancholy landscapes such as those by artists like Jo Ractliffe or David Goldblatt beg questions of framing, veracity and back story as to what is excluded. Marinovich’s forensic images are focused around the investigative marking and lettering of each individual murder site. They offer a haunting sense of culpability in the absence of detail and habitation in this killing field.
As he writes in an article accompanying the images, this cul-de-sac, surrounded by steep rocks, was where police gunned down many of the striking miners after the initial police engagement.
Equipped with this knowledge, the viewer cannot see the landscape as empty. Instead it is full of the horror of the massacre, even without any explicit detail.
The massacre in film
A very different kind of intervention and response to the massacre takes place in Aryan Kaganof’s lyrical agitprop film Night is Coming – a Threnody for the Victims of Marikana.
The initial edit of the film juxtaposes footage of an exclusive, and almost exclusively white, academic music symposium at Stellenbosch University at the time of the massacre. It has a hypnotic manipulated edit of the ‘official’ available news footage of the original engagement between the miners and the police who shot them down.
Kaganof’s original commission was to film the proceedings of the academic conference. He uses the premise of the exclusive and highly detached theoretical discourse happening at the event as a counterpoint to the Marikana footage. He subjects this to an almost unbearably extreme slowing-down. The altering of its duration renders it at once more poignant and more abstracted.
Diminishing of human life
A final example of an immediate artistic response to the tragedy was an exhibition of eleven oil paintings by artist Mary Wafer. It consists of a set of paintings in a muted palette, with a fragile and delicate use of the artist’s trademark black paint, which is based on aerial reconnaissance photographs and other media images of the site.
The titles of the images mirror the sparseness of their style. Aerial I, II and III all abstract both the site itself and the aerial photographs which they refer to. The paintings all contain a flock of black marks which could be people, though they have no detail. The birds’ eye view presages both the tragedy and the diminishing of the value of human life it presupposes.
All of these works both aestheticise the tragedy of Marikana, and pass judgement on the events. The artists use their images to change the viewer’s relation to the events. In so doing, they provide a different framework for understanding the tragedy and others like it as at the same time aesthetically and politically significant.