The Mpumalanga escarpment — where the high lush cliffs fall abruptly to pierce the hot red earth of the lowlands. It serves as a geo-physical symbol for the edge of the Southern African frontier. A collision point that has inspired countless folktales, has bore witness to centuries of epic warfare and the beginnings of the modern-day story of gold in South Africa.

Today, plantations of foreign trees blanket the landscape while mills churn steam as they pulp pine into paper. In the valleys below, gold mines that have been chiming steel against rock for over 100 years ring their ceaseless chorus. The surrounding terrain is littered with relics of another time — the remnants of a forgotten pre-colonial agricultural society, infrastructure from an entirely defunct asbestos mining industry and wild descendants of horses abandoned during a failed gold rush over a century ago. In recent times, there has been a mystical reimagining of the region as the site of the oldest civilisation on earth.

Mapalakata is a Bapedi word meaning ‘visitors’, that was used to describe Arab and Indian traders who moved through Southern Africa before the time of European colonisation. The word is not commonly used in the vocabulary of today. This selection is drawn from a larger photographic engagement with the area that looks at the transient nature of ‘visitors’ to the landscape who have occupied it for its resources—natural, historical and cultural—over the centuries. The work aims to create a narrative that weaves together the historical and geographical elements of the region as a way of reflecting on the fluid significance of land, which is tied to what it has to offer and those whom seek dominion over it.

These images were made between 2019 and 2020 on various trips through the region. The selected images form part of a larger body of work.

I am a South African Photographer dealing with socio-spatial issues centred around land, history and globalisation — both within my home country and further afield. My work is made in the context of collaborative interactions that I have with my subjects, and in turn the interactions that we both have with the environment we find ourselves in. The environment — be it ‘natural’ or built — is viewed as the embodiment of a constant negotiation between those who inhabit the land and the land itself.

MAPALAKATA by Robin Bernstein

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