My history with the site of the former Village Main Mine, just visible alongside the M2 highway, as the Joe Slovo onramp merges with the motorway heading West, begins as a student at Wits University in the mid 1990’s. Passing the head-gear of the mine on a daily basis, I was always fascinated by this marker of the city’s mining history. Around 2010, the headgear suddenly disappeared.
Since 2008, Dorothee Kreutzfeldt and I had been working on our book, Not No Place – Johannesburg, Fragments of Spaces and Times (Jacana, 2013) and had been documenting sites along the mining belt, including the Top Star Drive-In, which was also in the process of being re-mined. Over the course of our 6 years of research on the city, we would visit the site of the Village Main on several occasions. After the completion of Not No Place, I would again return periodically to the site over the course of 2 years of fieldwork for the book project, Routes and Rites to the City: Mobility, Diversity and Religious Space in the Johannesburg. Here I worked with researchers, Melekias Zulu, Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon, Peter Kankonde Bukasa and Lorena Núñez Carrasco and the project was based in the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits (ACMS). What is at question here is the temporality and history my relationship to this site produced by these two very different collaborations, where the role of writer, artist and researcher were in some ways interchangeable.
The title of Not No Place is strongly tied to this site, a photograph of which became the cover of the book. The site embodies the two images of the city at play in the book, both the non-place and the negation of the u-topia (no place in its direct translation). It is in some ways the perfect location for the distopic image of the Johannesburg: abandoned, graffitied, the territory of what is called “illegal” mining and other kinds of criminality. Most recently, Neill Blomkamp used it as a location for a violent scene in his film ‘Chappie.’ It is also for many people a non-place, a ruin of some structure seen in passing, easily forgotten. As such, it encapsulates something of the complexities around “place” specific to Johannesburg. Not a single image but many fragmentary images project themselves onto the city’s spaces, often incoherent, contested, competing. It is also the image of the uitvalgrond, a zone outside of the order of the built city, not quite landscape nor wilderness but still a manmade as opposed to natural environment, toxic and disturbed. In the background of the cover image that shows the entrance to the mine, now sealed with concrete and minus the headgear, the Carlton Centre is visible, a sort of monument to the city’s late 60’s Modernist building boom. These developments mark the moment of the shift from an economy based largely on gold mining to the investment of mining capital into more speculative commercial property and industrial developments. The failure of the ruin to symbolise this history is symptomatic of the city’s nostalgia for its own future. What is remembered here is remembered for the future, not the past. History is left unspoken: the ecological effects of the mines’ often rapid closures during the 70’s and 80’s, the housing of mining labour in inadequate hostels along the Rand, many still in existence as worker’s housing, a devastating hunger strike during the 1980’s, as well as the current ownership of the mine and its mineral-rich tailings dams. Here too, artisanal mining remains an invisible economy of the site, with evidence of small diggings everywhere.
For Not No Place our documentation of Village Main was from various points of view: driving shots taken from the M2 highway, or along the Wemmer Pan road which divides the original erf, and walking onto the site to photograph. We also staged a series of photographs working with other artists, including Donna Kukama and photographer Ashley Walters. The book included a science fiction narrative involving a time-traveller. I had based one of these fragments at the site. These two modes, the staged photograph and the fiction, both attempted to narrate the site in some way, or to stage it as a kind of fiction. This visualisation of space in multiple images is influenced by the idea of movement defining what we see – by car, on foot, but also the moving image: film.
After the publication of Not No Place, I revisited the site first with Melekias Zulu to talk to a group of Apostolics who we noticed met on the site every Friday. We had a conversation with two members of the group. Later, I returned to photograph the site on the opposite side of Wemmer Pan road and the space across the highway. As both co-author of a chapter and the book’s visual editor, I was part of the project as both an artist and writer, although I had little exposure to what those with an anthropological or social science background would call ‘fieldwork’. I see the work that has unfolded in relation to the space as structured by a series of encounters with the site, and those who inhabit it. These encounters happen at varying levels of distance: some from the vantage point of the highway, others close up, walking in the space, some from as far away as through the viewfinders at the top of the Carlton Centre, and others in historical archives or council records. There were many continuities between the fieldwork for Routes and Rites and the work done for Not No Place, especially visually. However, there is a difference in the way the material is presented and narrated, evident in the extracts associated with different areas on the site map.
The different points of view of the many photographs shot at Village Main stage these different modalities of encounter: close and far, intimate and distant, fixed and in passing, textual and fictionalised. Instead of an exhibition, I chose to produce a visual supplement to the Routes and Rites book project. I worked with several photographers and artists on this project, but most of the material generated for Village Main was shot by me. I avoided shooting any of the apostolic groups in the space from close up. The images shot from the highway attempt to capture the space seen while driving past so that in a sense those photographed become part of the space, telling the story of its transformation every Sunday into a sacred space. Even though the researchers and myself had spoken to and were familiar with some of the groups, shooting them close up felt too invasive. However, I was also aware that the distant point of view located me as outsider, as observer, as voyeur. The only portraits in the Routes and Rites visual supplement are self-portraits or personal images, where there is an intimate relationship between the author/photographer and the religious group. The point of view from the highway is counterposed by the photographs taken during a walk through the site, shot on a week day in the absence of worshippers. Here the physical traces of spiritual activity and ritual practices are the only visible signs: a red cloth used by Nyanga/Sangoma’s to mark a crossroads, a cross made of stones, markers of sacred spaces – reeds, painted rocks, seating, fire.
The final area of the Village Main property was encountered in an archive. Researching the city council ownership records, Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon and I had come across the original title deed for the mine, which revealed that part of the property had been sold to the Catholic church in the 1920’s. Somewhat puzzled by this proximity of sacred and profane, we’d initially dismissed the record as impossible until coming across a building on the other side of the Highway that cuts across the old mining ground. This building turned out to be the only remaining part of an original Catholic church, which included a school, destroyed in a fire in the 1950’s. In the title deed, there is the bizarre stipulation that while the church owns the surface area of this part of the erf, the mine retains the mineral rights below.
Village Main is a site of competing spatial, economic and religious orders, a union of sacred and toxic ground, the transcendental and the subterranean, the holy and unholy. On its surface illegal miners compete for this unstable, mineral rich and toxic surface with Christian Apostolics, traditional healers and diviners, as well as criminals and private security. I add myself to this field of competitors. All are in a sense vulnerable here, both to crime and to the toxicity of the environment; criminals are often armed with guns and violent robberies and rapes happen frequently. The soil is rich with deposits of heavy metals and chemicals that have produced what is called Acid Mine Drainage affecting the ground water used in baptism and cleaning rituals and in processes of extraction in illegal mining.
It remains for me a site of rupture, where visible and invisible orders, magic and reality coexist. It made sense to encounter it once again on a long distance flight in a scene from a science fiction film.
The content here is not all my own, but is the result of several collaborations and conversations, each one unique and each one producing a different image of the Village Main site. Some of the text above is adapted from Not No Place: Johannesburg, Fragments of Spaces and Times, and some from the chapter ‘Valleys of Salt in the House of God’ by myself and Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon for the book Routes and Rites to the City, pending publication. The most important of these collaborations has been, and still is, the one with Dorothee Kreutzfeldt, which has defined so strongly how I see. Thanks also to Melekias Zulu and Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon.
Village Main by Dorothee Kreutzfeldt (Not No Place, 2013), Rain by Bettina Malcomess (Not No Place, 2013), Catholic Church by Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon and Bettina Malcomess (Routes and Rites Visual Supplement, 2015), Village Main Erf 96/7 by Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon and Bettina Malcomess (Routes and Rites), Wemmer Pan Road by Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon, Melekias Zulu Peter Kankonde Bukasa and Lorena Núñez Carrasco (Routes and Rites).
Map: Melekais Zulu (Routes and Rites Visual Supplement, 2015). Photographs of Village Main: Ashley Walters, Dorothee Kreutzfeldt, Bettina Malcomess (Not No Place and Routes and Rites). Film Screen Grabs: Chappie, Dir. Neill Blomkamp, 2015 (IMDB)
Not No Place: Johannesburg, Fragments of Spaces and Times. Bettina Malcomess and Dorothee Kreutzfeldt. Jacana (Fanele), Johannesburg, 2013.
Routes and Rites to the City: Mobility, Diversity and Religious Space in Johannesburg: Visual Supplement. African Centre for Migration and Society, Johannesburg, 2015.