The Big Hole Counter Narrative Project

The official webpage of the Big Hole “experience” in Kimberley offers the story of the diamond rush from the winner’s perspective “the visitors centre tells the multi-faceted story of diamonds, of the people that sought them, the tools they used and the wealth they generated”. The wording politely focuses on the successes of colonialists like Cecil John Rhodes and Barney Banato, while avoiding the reality of the exploitation and systematic dispossession of black mineworkers.

With their new project, artists Francois Knoetze and Theogene Niwenshuti and musician Mkhululi Mabija (in collaboration with Sol Plaatjie University under Carina Truyts) set out to attack this historical airbrushing.  Combining a series of visual and performance interventions, their aim was ” to disrupt odious colonial narratives that romanticize the town’s history of diamond extraction”.

In stark contrast, this project highlights the myriad of ways in which diamonds have cursed Kimberley. A short film made to document the work is book ended with a model of the city being decimated by volcanic lava pouring out of the Hole and over the surrounding buildings. In an Adam Curtis style montage, archive shots of the rich wearing diamonds are intercut with scenes of the harsh reality of mine life under Apartheid.  Sound tracked, of course, by Diamonds are Forever. Knoetze has gained praise for his innovative mask work in his previous Cape Mongo series, which he continues here with witty scenes of a grotesque Cecil John Rhodes prowling the malls of modern Kimberley. The film skillfully includes the participation of a community members, with a great scene of teenagers visiting a casino and wisely concluding ” diamonds are money and make people mad”.

As South Africa faces an increasingly unstable future, the project is a great example of how socially engaged art can tackle the traumatic and unresolved past.

Watch the film here –

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