Many visitors to South Africa’s gold mines were invited to watch a weekly ritual, the performance of traditional dances by African mineworkers. Touted by the mineowners as a beneficial form of leisure for miners, no doubt these dances helped workers let off steam, while also reinforcing the powerful ethnic affiliation and identification designed to keep the diverse migrant workforce divided.
Photographs of these performances for fellow mineworkers and visiting whites were common, and appeared on postcards, in mine company brochures, and tourist pamphlets, as shown below. Bourke-White’s approach to documenting this ceremony was somewhat different, however. First, in addition to recording the dance itself, she was sure to capture the fact that this was a staged, rather than spontaneous, performance. Moreover, after photographing the dancers, she insisted on following a pair of them deep into the mine to watch them at their work. This is the origin of her underground photographs of miners 1139 and 5122.
“At first, this was a spontaneous expression, but now it is actively encouraged by the mines who often provide the men as well as with their correct tribal costumes.”