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
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
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.