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Ilan Godfrey’s Legacy of the Mine Launched at the Irma Stern Museum with Max Price

Max Price and Ilan Godfrey

Ilan Godfrey’s arresting photograph of a gaunt miner reclining on his bed, sickened with silicosis, dominates the entrance to UCT’s Irma Stern Museum. On entering the gallery, the intimacy and power of the images command one’s attention. Those who arrived last Saturday to celebrate the launch of the exhibition and book, Legacy of the Mine, were struck by the artist’s capacity to represent the lived reality of those who toil below the ground.

Ilan GodfreyLegacy of the MineIlan Godfrey was introduced as an enormously talented South African photographer, the recipient of numerous awards, locally and internationally, with images hanging in many of the major art galleries around the world. He returned from London in 2011 and spent two and a half years to put together this collection, which earned him the Ernest Cole Award.

Cole, a documentary photographer who died in New York in 1990, is the author of House of Bondage, which appeared in 1967 and was immediately banned in South Africa. Sadly, he never returned to South Africa.

Max Price paid tribute to Godfrey’s book at the opening of his exhibition, which coincided with first anniversary of the Marikana massacre. “If that event and the year that has passed since then with all the turmoil in the mining industry isn’t a testimony to the legacy of the mine then nothing is. This book and exhibition elaborate and dig into that legacy in a way that achieves its goal of having an impact on the world, recognising that mining has been and will remain a central part of the South African economy and its life”.

Price said Legacy of the Mine focuses on the country’s hot topic in a year of mining controversy, igniting reflection and serious contemplation. He praised Sakhela Buhlungu’s foreword, which contextualises the history of the mining industry. “Godfrey’s images probe the dark side of the industry, which is the flip side of the glamour, the profits, the wealth, the aristocracy and the economic contribution the industry makes to South Africa.”

He pointed out that the country has remarkable mineral resources, the history of which goes back thousands of years to the early Iron Age. The last 150 years witnessed the discovery of diamonds and gold. These events set the country on the path of industrialisation and profoundly influenced the social development in the region.

Price noted that the Ernest Cole Award was intended to enable a photographer to prepare a portfolio, an exhibition and a book that focuses on social issues. Cole’s House of Bondage was about life under apartheid, and contains many images pertaining to life on the gold mines around Johannesburg. “His most famous photograph of a group of African men, standing naked with their arms in the air as they are medically examined as recruits for the mines, became iconic in the anti-apartheid struggle. Nearly 50 years later, Godfrey’s photographs pick up the story where Cole left off. They deal with the legacy of mining in South Africa and raise questions about the current practice, as well as what the future legacy will be.”

Price commented on how Godfrey’s lens focused on the indelible scars that mining has left: socially, environmentally and health-wise. He spoke passionately about the images that examine the impact mining has had on the landscape: “the beautiful landscapes poisoned by acid water, landscapes pitted with dangerous sinkholes threatening to swallow up houses and human beings, and landscapes spewing toxic dust that destroys the lungs of the children who play there.”

He noted the images of communities living nearby mines where workers scavenge for the last residues of gold. Godfrey had focused on communities and their habitats – the houses, shacks and rubbish dumps they inhabit. He also pictured the deserted ghost towns that were left in the wake of a closed mine: “the sad, desperate tiny communities that have nowhere to go after a mine closes”. Price highlighted the large number of Zimbabweans who feature in Godfrey’s images and, in particular, the fascinating photographs of the “Zama-zamas”. He said they are the people who enter the disused mine shafts illegally, living for up to six months underground in order to scavenge and extract a few grams of gold. They take enormous risks under desperate circumstances, often falling to their death in the disused shafts.

While each image tells a remarkable story, there is an additional explanation mounted in a text box that provides the story behind the image for curious viewers. The exhibition is open to the public until 21 September and is utterly worth a visit.

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Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) tweeted from the launch using #livebooks:

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