South Africa | Janet Goldner and The Global Africa Project
Although sculptor Janet Goldner has spent most of her 35 year long engagement with Africa producing sculptures inspired by Mali, it was her stunning gold necklace exploring the working conditions of gold miners in apartheid South Africa that caught Lowery Stokes Sims’ attention. Sims, the Curator at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, hand-picked the piece for the museum’s ambitious exhibition, the Global Africa Project, which surveys the global influences on African art and vice versa, African art’s influence on the globe. In Ms. Goldner’s creation, black and white photographs of the miners and their families are bordered in ornate gold and hung on an oversized barbed wire-esque necklace. Ms. Goldner spoke with of note about the origin of the 1992 piece, its current place in the exhibit, and its relevance in 2011.
You tackle a lofty and heavily political issue here. What was the story you wanted to convey?
The large medallions are images of the working conditions for the miners. The smaller squares show their thoughts of home and family. During apartheid, black miners and other contract workers left their families for eleven months out of the year. They only saw their families during their one month off. So I imagined that they might be thinking about their wives and children and villages while they were in the mine.
Can you walk us through how the piece materialized?
In 1992, I was invited to participate in an exhibition entitled, Gold. All the other works used gold as a color or as bling. I had traveled to South Africa in 1989 and wanted to address the glitter in a more substantial way.
I did research about South African gold mining to find textual information and images about the working conditions. I went to the library. This was pre-internet: 1992! How I was going to use the information developed during the process of fabricating the work.
What personal significance does this piece have for you?
The work represents the 35 years I have been involved with Africa. This is an atypical piece for me. I am more involved with Mali than South Africa. And I am better known for my steel sculptures. But recently I have also been working in photography and video.
How does the Necklace function within the larger context of the Global Africa Project?
As a political message, it is important that apartheid not be forgotten. Artistically, I knew I wanted viewers to be drawn in by a beautifully presented ornate gold necklace and then on closer inspection, come to understand the message. I wanted it to look like it was in a formal case in a museum, so the black velvet sloping support in a plexiglas case is an important part of the piece.
The concept of the piece is very timely given the recent headlines about humane conditions for mine workers around the world. What drew you to this issue initially? Why did you want to tell this story?
That the work is topical again all these years after the end of apartheid and comments on the current disasters in the world, brings the work into a renewed conversation beyond my original thoughts. But it is also not so surprising since South African activists under apartheid understood the close relationship between race and class.
The Global Africa Project is on view at the Museum of Arts and Design through May 15, 2011. Learn more about Janet Goldner’s work at www.janetgoldner.com.