WHATIFTHEWORLD is pleased to present Chamber of Mines – a collaborative exhibition between Rowan Smith and Xhanti Zwelendaba comprising a series of sculptural and mixed media installations which look at the intersection between mining, class stratification, heritage, citizenship and immigration in contemporary South Africa.
Deriving their exhibition title from the employers’ organisation of the South African mining industry, Smith and Zwelendaba reimagine the Chamber of Mines as a metal scrap yard complete with an industrial scale and transaction window. The installation succinctly draws a parallel between the hazardous theft of copper cables and piping for scrap and the exploitative capitalist structures on which the mining industry is built. In the exhibition, two simulated sites of copper cable theft – gaping disembowelments in the walls with exposed copper innards – become surrogates for the violence inflicted upon both the landscape and the physical bodies of the miners in the pursuit of mineral extraction. The artists draw a comparison between the subtexts of exploitation and desperation that prompt both miners and cable thieves to place their physical wellbeing at risk in order to provide for them and their families.
On the opposite side of the exhibition space are the remnants of an abandoned Welcome Home celebration; a copper-plated pennant lies collapsed on the floor alongside wilted foil balloons. The accompanying video work entitled The Homecoming Revolution continuously reflects the arrival of flights coming into South Africa from Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. Here Smith and Zwelendaba reference what has been called the Homecoming Revolution; wherein (predominantly white) South Africans who had previously left the country in pursuit of a better quality of life and opportunities find themselves returning in large numbers. This so-called ‘brain gain’ is contrasted with the largely immigrant population which makes up the mining industry through the juxtaposition of air travel signifiers and an Emergency Exit rear
window which recalls the overcrowded buses which usually transport immigrant workers. The comparison raises questions about the loaded and problematic implications embedded in distinctions between ‘expats’ and ‘immigrants’.
The exhibition’s second room is centered around a reconstituted bale of various braai units. Cubed in the same way as post-scrapyard metal, the bundled braais seemingly point to the insidious co- option of National Heritage Day into National Braai Day; effectively erasing the diversity of South African cultural heritage that the public holiday was initially intended to celebrate. Smith and Zwelendaba suggest that any attempt to package South Africa’s vastly disparate array of lived cultural experiences (both current and historical) into a single shared Rainbow Nation entity is fallacious. This is further underscored through a lightbox which superimposes an action shot of Chester Williams – the sole non-white player in the first South Africa national rugby team after 1994; who was nicknamed the Black Pearl as a result – with archival imagery of apartheid-era riot police in a township.
Rowan Smith (b.1983 in Cape Town) completed his MFA at the California Institute for the Arts in 2012 and recently presented No Everything his third solo exhibition with WHATIFTHEWORLD. Smith’s work and research is currently centered around the failure of mono-cultural European models of nationalism to accommodate the coexistence of hyper-pluralistic societies in African nation-states post independence.
Xhanti Zwelendaba (b. 1992 in Alice) is currently completing his BFA final year at the Michaelis School of Fine Art; his work deals with the various dissonant systems of value produced by the tension between the parallel modernities of Xhosa custom/tradition and contemporary global capitalism.
Chamber of Mines is their first collaborative exhibition at WHATIFTHEWORLD.