Vanessa Berlein


Since a young age I have been attracted to working with metallic’s, layering, glazing and embellishment. It took a while before my father pointed out the obvious – I was looking to emulate the rock formations I had studied as a child. I considered this and realized that inspiration for the works did indeed spring from this, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was an opportunity to go beyond the obvious.
My father was a geologist and a farmer. In the early 70’s. he became part owner of a mine outside of Pilgrims Rest in Mpumalanga that had originally been mined during the gold rush in the 1800s, and then in the 50s and 60s it had been illegally mined by prospectors. All the original mine workings still existed – mined deep into the Theta and Sheba reefs- clawed out of the mountains and hills by the hands of desperate people – the owners of the claims, desperate to strike it rich and live the high life, the laborers desperate to earn enough to survive.
It was an eerie place. Once a village settlement, complete with hotel and a few shops, the only building still standing was the managers house, built in about 1899. The dump from the hotel my siblings and I, found under a nest of bush – piles of bottles, some cutlery, broken crockery and then we started to find the mine workers identity tags – similar to dog tags used in the war, except, instead of a name, these had a number and the word “Kafir” stamped into the metal. We hoarded our treasure trying to piece together a life of yesteryear in the imagination of our child minds, but it was only as an adult that I began to understand the horrors that mining for gold entailed
Many times I donned a hard hat with a flame burning and explored the underground mine workings. The Rock face was damp and the walls dripped moisture into puddles that drowned the old railway tracks, bats flew at us and the air was icy. Veins of azurite and malachite scattered the walls and quartz chunks encrusted with fools gold (Pyrites), lay all about. My father explained to me that there was little machinery back in the 1800s, and that the diggings were done mostly by hand. This astounded me, that these long tunnels into the mountains had been dug by humans. There were shelves about 50cm deep carved off of the tunnels, and I learned that small children had been equipped with small picks and for hours at a time they would lie on their sides picking at the rock face, searching for clues of gold deposits, and a chance for a master to hit the jackpot.
There was gold in the reef, and in the old dumps, but the expense of extracting it was exorbitant, and so the mine was eventually sold.


The process of producing the abstract metallic works has become one of meditation for me. It is a process that has allowed for a consideration and an exploration of the mining for gold and minerals and the effects that it has on people and societies. It has made me reflect on my own identity, and my role as a beneficiary of practices that were fundamentally exploitative and extractive. My family came from across the world in search of minerals and wealth – some had success, others didn’t, but my privilege and comfort is a product of colonists who sought the riches that mining could bring. It is through the process of making my work that I am understanding the importance of owning the formation of my identity, the wounds inflicted by our origins and the responsibility we must take to acknowledge how we have benefitted from the suffering of others – until we do that we cannot heal.
The use of metal leafing in my works, alludes to the precious metals mined, and the beauty and magnificence of the minerals themselves. Painting into the metal leaf with oil paints gives chance to convey the astonishing beauty within the colours in the rock formations but also is suggestive of the souls lost and damaged through the process of mining. The stitching is symbolic of the suturing of wounds, and the loose threads that hang from the work, indicative of the hope that there is always room to stitch and help wounds to heal, if only we take the needle, prick the conscience and begin to stitch.
Through my work I hope to promote dialogue and an awareness of identity, I hope to encourage people to own their make up and in so doing, facilitate their own healing and the healing of others.

Vanessa Berlein

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28 Jul 2019

Written by Nadine Froneman (MFA)

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