In mining regions in the Amazon, artistic work portraying the lives and strife’s of gold miners is prolific. Artistic expression is part of mining lives and communities; it can be seen in statues and graffiti in the streets. The art demonstrates a sense of pride in how the region has transformed due to the efforts of miners; it also stamps a claim on the territory and occupation. The symbolic value of gold reveals itself in embodied ways: many miners wear gold jewelry, and may adorn their bodies with tattoos or with gold on their teeth. Such intimate body-art gives a message about how gold and personal lives are entangled: together they form Gold Lifeways, pathways in which lives of people cross-connect with gold matters.
In public and in personal ways, artistic work in the Amazon highlights the role of gold in the development of regions and in the aspirations of individuals and communities. Interestingly, in West Africa and Uganda we do not find such clear examples of popular art engaging with artisanal mining. Gold mining itself maybe an art and items like a traditional gold balance maybe finely crafted. In Ghana gold has historically been used to craft objects symbolizing royalty, but around contemporary mining places there is little ARTistic work which takes up the theme of ARTisanal gold mining. This contrast between the Amazon and parts of Africa is most interesting. In the exhibition, African Artistic work on the Artisanal is represented by the work of two artists, both central collaborators in the Gold Matters project: Photographer Nii Obodai and Painter Christophe Sawadogo.
The long presence of miners and mining culture in the Brazilian Amazon and the Guianas finds expression in local art works. Along the highway BR-163, it is impossible to miss the giant statues of garimpeiros at the entrance of villages. They are a tribute local people pay to the small-scale gold miners who are seen as significant pioneers of the Amazon. They act as a landmark claiming the identity of miners as explorers and developers, and champion gold mining for sustaining the local economy. The statues symbolize gold miners’ presence in the villages and their political position on land rights and the use of natural resources. This encounter of past, present, of old, and modern is also visible in local street art. The graffiti “Itaituba o Eldorado Encantado” (Itaituba, the enchanted Eldorado) embodies the interpretation of mining culture by the younger generation: a man with his gold pan. Such street art shows a romanticized image of the garimpeiro that hardly matches with the complex activity performed nowadays. In French Guiana public walls are also used for opposition to gold mining.
Personal adornment also symbolizes how gold mining is central to past and present personal lives. The large tattoo of a bulldozer on the arm of a garimpeiro reveals how working as a machine operator is the achievement of a life. Miners often wear golden rings, necklaces, bracelets, and watches. These jewels have an intrinsic connection with the outcome of their work, being symbols of success, of a miner’s wealth. They embody the dream of all people who have come looking for prosperity.
Big Dreams: Life Built on Gold
Gold is almost never what miners want. Gold is a conduit for achieving their big dreams: a big house, school fees, artistic endeavors, a new life abroad, or a stable income. Portraits of gold miners focus on suffering, inferiority, and disconnectedness. Rarely are their lives documented as they are, driven by desires universal to everyone.
For some, the big dream feels like a mirage they can see but not reach. For others, the big dream morphs into a new one, once the previous dream comes true. This project documented the individual journeys to their dreams. It was a collaboration with Chinese journalist, Yiting Sun.
Initially, it was the gold trade, rather than the Trans-Atlantic slave trade that provided the drive to build the imposing forts and castles along the shores of Ghana in the 1500s and 1600s.
I started working on this project in the immediate aftermath of a government crackdown on illegal gold miners in Ghana in June 2013. The crackdown followed conflict between local and Chinese miners, whom the government ordered from the country.
New Dreams: Imagining Gold Lives
“I am from the Centre Nord in Burkina Faso, where the desert is advancing, and where the climate and the seasons impact on our lives and on the movement of the population. My parents had to migrate to neighbouring Ivory Coast, “where the grass is greener”. I remained with my aunt. Like most of my classmates, I did a lot of kilometers every day. It resurfaces in my work and can explain the pieces of paper that I put on the roads in my neighborhood, on the mine trails. Likewise, terrorism affects parts of Burkina and thousands of people are leaving their areas of residence. I see it with my artistic means, with earth, my pencils, ink and carbon.”
“My aunt wanted me to become a medical doctor but at school in Ouagadougou, I already got interested in art and visited art gatherings and exhibitions. Women in my village heard of my art and I was summoned home. There was a ‘tribunal feminine’; the women interrogated: ‘We hear you are selling paper to white people, what are you doing?’ They worried whether I could make a living as an artist and whether prices for my work were decided in all honesty. With my aunt’s approval, I moved on into the world of art. My gallery is called ‘Maan Neere’. In Moore, my language, this means ‘to do beautiful/good’. Aesthetically appealing but also morally good – combining ‘le beau et le bien’ – it expresses why art matters: anything that is just is in itself beautiful and something that is beautiful should be just and help achieve justice.”
These statues are common in every city along the highway BR-163. They act as landmarks that garimpeiros use to reinforce their pride as protagonists in their regional history, and as a political statement to defend their profession.
A statue on the streets of Novo Progresso.
Like statues, street art portrays the garimpeiro as a romanticized symbolic figure: a man with his gold pan. It appeals to an identity connected to history, and not necessarily to the activity performed nowadays.
Paintings on a wall in Itaituba, conjure up popular stereotypes about gold miners and indigenous peoples. The image of an artisanal gold miner, on the right, is close to the image of a native American (not Brazilian indigenous) with an axe and a toucan, on the left.
In front of one of the commercial hubs to illegal mining in the French Amazon Parc this mural reminds us that gold is not the only natural resource that is valuable. The real treasure is the green forest.
Being an excavator driver is so important to this machine operator’s life that he wanted to mark the love and pride for his job on his own skin. In this way, he expresses his position as an “honest worker” against a general stereotype of garimpeiros as “bandits”.
A small shop of a local goldsmith in Creporizão, a remote village located at the end of the Transgarimpeira road in the state of Pará.
A goldsmith manually crafting a ring. Next to jobs in the mines, gold offers many other income opportunities.
The use of gold jewellery is very common among garimpeiros as a symbol of wealth and success. These jewels show that the expectations of so many people who came to these regions looking for richness finally became true.
Jewels made of gold nuggets are valuable, also when the gold nuggets have impurities such as flaws or small stones embedded, because they come directly from the mine.
At first, we sought out Chinese miners. The government was getting them to self-deport or be expelled. These guys were in hiding. Signs of the Chinese and mining were easily found. “Beware sodium cyanide convey” on this lorry hints at Chinese connection to gold, revealing too the movement of mining goods.
We moved to areas the Chinese had been mining. After violent clashes with local miners, military operations removed them. Abandoned equipment, areas deserted.
Well organized, an orderly workflow and dormitories. Well defended too, a 14-foot deep moat surrounds the camp, preventing local miners from stealing gold. Used shotgun shells tell a story.
I realized we had to look at ourselves as Ghanaians and not just blame the Chinese. Who owns land and has access to land is at the heart of many matters. We connected to local miners who had moved into Chinese sites and pits. See, a miner with a homemade “coolie” hat.
Miners exhausted. Bringing up ore, sitting in the presence of a gold buyer, a woman labourer, curled on the ground asleep, a gold nugget. Making so little from hard, hard labor.
Taking photos and observing one is aware of mobility – machines moving, people moving, gold moving. The military were still around so locals were going to the abandoned Chinese mines in a clandestine way. This miner is returning home at the end of the day, I took the picture from an abandoned excavator pond as he passed.
Heavy machinery is now used by small-scale miners, with serious effects on the environment. This led us to explore forests to see how they have been affected by mining.
The largest river in Ghana looks so tranquil. Looks are deceptive; it has come to a standstill as result of the use of dredgers brought in by the Chinese.
Going into the forest, we encountered buildings of early European mining companies, now derelict.
The richness and beauty of a relatively undestroyed forest environment stand in contrast to the impact mining has wrecked on other areas.
From forests affected by mining, we turned attention to non-mining people affected by mining. Here, private residences on registered property are being encroached upon. Local miners gave warnings and then started excavating. This man went to court to stop the miners and won his case, but to no avail, they continued mining.
From the nineteenth century, Prestea grew up as the first colonial gold mining town in Ghana. So much wealth has flowed from this area, but yet local development remains so limited. This dilapidated school sign seems to illustrate these inequalities.
This boy was not attending school at the time this photograph was made.
Many communities are affected by the lack of water supply due to exploitation of water resources by large and small-scale mining operations. This young girl stands by a community borehole pump whose well has dried up.
Joe Danka who came to Gbane in 2000 to prospect for gold. On realizing there were no schools available for the children in the community, he set aside his ambitions to mine gold and focused on building and establishing the school.
Students in one of the three classrooms.
Originally from Obuasi, Alfred King Sharpstone, popularly known as Nana, moved to Gbane to mine gold twenty years ago. He was one of the first teachers/miners at the school and now dedicates his full time teaching at the school. He is seen sitting in front of his house.
I took this photo of a gold miner and his wife some years ago. In 2020, I returned to look for him and discovered he had passed. His wife is now married to another miner. I was told that when widowed women try to remarry another miner.
This family lost their 11 and 13-year-old boys in a mine accident. They were playing in an open pit, which caved in. By the family’s account, these excellent school students became the first non-mining causalities from a mine accident in this community.
These women worked as a gang, mining a pit together. They did this to generate income to manage their families. They were the only female gang I met anywhere in the country.
I took these portraits in Kibi. They are of a mixture of local Ghanaian and migrant miners from Niger, and in the last photo from Burkina Faso.
Portrait of a woman and her son. She works with a gang of miners carrying 50-60 kg bags of ore from the mining site to the processing site, a distance of approximately half a kilometer.
Portrait of a miner’s wife. She moved to Prestea to look for a better life and married a local miner.
Miners pose for their portrait right after finishing their underground shift.
“My aunt did not have daughters, so I was raised with tasks that are normally for the life of girls, such as fetching water and strolling in the bush with goats. In the Sahel the landscape is beautiful but it also poses hardships for residents. This is a theme of my work.”
“It happens that the canvas is a meeting. In the physical sense of the word, that puts in the frame, the one who paints on the canvas and those who are painted, the earth that carries them and the air they breathe.”
“I often work with groups of people. Today, drought and precariousness affect entire sections of society. I do not fall for moralism; but I often come back to the UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights).”
“The work of art must remain a social mirror, the reflection, the geography, the history of a world that generated it. It has nothing to do with (…) the pale copy of the West, with its dominant codes. I am convinced that art touches you if you have your own imprint on it. If we recognize each other. ”
“To work on collective drawing and see you all smiling while taking five minutes to train your fingers in drawing, long life to Gold Matters!”
“You all wrote your dreams for the project and this lady came out”.
“There is the movement of people going about daily lives; paper collects footprints, tire tracks and other markings. Here, the paper takes traces of the car tires. The colours shine through. Suspended between dream and reality a painting creates an opening, a window on new horizons.”
“It has been inspiring for me to work on the boy miner and the women carrying tailings using different coloured earth from the goldfield with the drivers helping.”