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Building on last year’s body of work shown at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town, Vári’s new exhibition in Johannesburg concentrates on the trope of excavation. For this native Gauteng artist, who has worked consistently with the idea of a mutant geopolitical landscape throughout her career, the revelatory potential of turning up the soil, or drawing things out of the earth, is not new.
Nor is it an unfamiliar trope in South African contemporary art. While many celebrated SA artists concentrate on the direct confrontation between landscape, capital, labour and imagination that goes into the iconography of South African mining, this is becoming less tenable, for both historical and politico-aesthetic reasons, the seismic shifts of Marikana being prominent among them.
Vári’s exhibition departs from the general template of an aesthetic depiction of the contest between capital and the embedded political power of the historically white mining elite on one hand and the perpetually displaced and disempowered working class majority on the other.
Through her lens, and through an exhibition of truly mixed media work – in photographic prints, video installations, paintings and sculptures – she presents the trope of excavation as a key metaphor in the Southern African imagination, one that goes back to antiquity and draws together the material and metaphysical aspects of the underground.
Working with themes that range from archaeological discovery to the extraction from the earth of resources to the subconscious origin of creativity and regeneration, Vári specifically references the ancient and more recent history of the Johannesburg region, from the Cradle of Humankind, to the Gold Rush and Randlord era, to more personal and contemporary narratives relating to the city. Her work investigates how the stuff of the earth (minerals) and of mind and spirit (mythology and sacred knowledge) is brought to the surface, where it undergoes a fundamental transmutation into secular and spiritual currency.
A tension thus exists in the exhibition between ideas of a supernatural existence expressed through the ability to transform physical materials and resources and a secular take on the same idea. In the secular sense the mining industry excavates raw minerals and resources and turns them into capital, control, social and political power, while the excavations of archaeology reveal the riches of time and the depths of identity. In the spiritual sense the stuff of the earth is extracted and transformed through a “torment of the metals” into material of rare power – the prime matter of the universe of which our planet and everything on it is made, changed alchemically into substances which can allow us to live forever, possess great knowledge, and so on. Common to both also is the idea that wealth – or sacred knowledge – could cheat death, provide access to the beyond in terms of a spiritual or civic legacy.
The transformative illusion – lead into gold, death into life, is envisioned in Vári’s show as a series of such uncanny transformations. In the depths of Vári’s imagination, the excavations become primal and futuristic in the same moment, the urban landscape the inverse of the underground, the sky the inverse of the tunnel or the cavern. It is a vision both political and aesthetically transformative.
One key idea connects both the spiritual or alchemical realm and the extractive or capitalist one: through the fire – whether that of the imagination or of the purifying smelter – all things taken from the earth will return to ash. And ash, of course, is one key element in the grinding of the lenses through which we continue to be able to see and imagine.