Between damage and possibility: Informal Recycling Conceived as Life Raft

Art, access and agency - art sites of enabling

Keywords: Johannesburg, gold, garbage, Discard Theory, mine dump, inequality, recycling, waste pickers, informal economy, consumerism, capitalism, environmentalism, life raft, The Raft of the Medusa, Théodore Géricault, mixed media art


Contemporary South African society is deeply inequitable, thrusting the consumerist waste of those who have the means into the sphere of those whose most basic needs for survival are not adequately met. Much of this waste is recyclable, however, and is now recognised to have substantial monetary value. The collecting and selling of the discards of the wealthy thus offers a viable source of income for the country’s poor. This essay appraises Johannesburg in terms of its complex socio-economic systems and problems, particularly as these pertain to waste and its handlers. Specifically, it examines two conceptually related art interventions involving the City’s informal recyclers. The first, House 38: Hazardous Objects, commenced in 2009. Various iterations followed, culminating in the second – Sleeps with the fishes in 2016. In both, the intention was to articulate questions of value – material and, more especially, human.

House 38: Hazardous Objects comprised an installation of hand-beaten lead trash-objects and became a conceptual device to interrogate the following themes: the artwork as actant; labour, skill and materiality; and permanence versus disposability. Sleeps with the fishes re-purposed Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1819) by staging a group of recyclers crammed into a floundering skiff atop one of Johannesburg’s infamous mine dumps. Just as Géricault had sought to illustrate the inherent danger of governing bodies putting their interests above those of their citizens, giving power to political favourites, and abandoning the poor, so too did I wish to caution that civilcsociety as a whole cannot expect to escape unscathed when governmentalvand societal structures turn a blind eye to burgeoning consumption and its fallout – and to the circumstances of the poor who attend to the predicament.

But this essay also proposes that, since a physical shipwreck can be survived, it can therefore also symbolise innovation, endurance, spiritual and ethical resilience, and rebellion against authoritarian structures. And furthermore, just as the recycler’s trolleys are likened to sea-going vessels and their drivers to seafarers, so too, the pallet/raft can be suggested as a potent allegory for the self-reliant mariner who must use what little is available to survive in openbwaters. It will be seen that this essay persistently mediates between thebdiametrical themes of hardship and of opportunity, thereby articulating and sustaining the titular reference to damage and possibility.