Born in England in 1941, Sue Williamson moved to South Africa in 1948 where she was to become one of the country’s most influential contemporary artists. Now living and working in Cape Town, Williamson has featured in exhibitions across the globe and has participated in the Venice Biennale. Her work can be found in most major South African museums, and also internationally in prestigious collections such as the Tate Gallery, the Victoria & Albert Museum, MoMA and the Smithsonian Institution. The artist has worked in many different media throughout her career including video, installation and print and has also published two books: Art in South Africa: the Future Present and Resistance Art in South Africa.
For Frieze Masters Williamson and the Goodman Gallery, based in Johannesburg and Cape Town, presented several of her key early works made in the 1990s including: A Tale of Two Cradocks, Pages from a Government Tourist Brochure, For 30 Years Next to His Heart and The Long Journey of the Brothers Ngesi. These works explored themes of oppression in apartheid era South Africa, focusing on the dichotomies that emerged between the black and white experiences.
Williamson spoke to Artctualité about her experiences at the fair and about the inspirations behind her work:
Firstly, I’d just like to say once again how affected I was by your work at Frieze masters and how greatly it stood out in the fair. What was your experience of Frieze masters?
I had an amazing time at Frieze Masters. I don’t usually like being around too much where my work is being exhibited, but at Masters the level of interest in the work was considerable, and so many art world friends came by. I enjoyed the conversations which ensued. And I made many great new connections.
It was interesting to note that political art was largely absent from Frieze masters with the exception of your work.
Well, Romare Bearden the African American artist was right opposite me … some of his work deals with civil rights … but you are right, there wasn’t much work there that was socially aware.
Do you consider that a commercial fair has a social and political responsibility in the art it shows, rather than just showing art that is less disquieting, and thus perhaps more geared towards a commercial environment?
An art fair is basically a selling operation. The costs of participating are considerable, and galleries understandably show the work they think will attract collectors. Thus it is quite distinct from a curated show which might focus on more challenging and difficult work looking at a particular aspect of social unease. So I don’t think an art fair does have a social and political responsibility as such, but when a curator like Adriano Pedroso is given the mandate to create a section like ‘Spotlight’ at Frieze Masters which highlighted the individual production of 20 artists around the world, I think it adds a great deal of prestige to that art fair.
Your work seems to centre around the belief that we must continue to revisit the past in order not to forget the atrocities that occurred. In line with the aspirations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, do you find this to be the most effective route to reconciliation in South Africa?
Yes, I do think we need to revisit the past – not to dwell on the negative aspects more than is necessary, but in order to understand what we need to do – or not to do – today to move forwards.
Following on from that, as an artist working in post-apartheid South Africa with international exposure do you believe you have a personal responsibility to tell stories that were kept hidden from the rest of the world for so long?
Yes, I accept the telling of those suppressed stories as a personal responsibility, but I would not impose this responsibility on any other artist.
The creation of dual perspectives in ‘A Tale of Two Cradocks’ is poignant in its simplicity, could you explain to me how the idea came about?
I picked up the Cradock tourist guide book on my way to visit Nyame Goniwe partly because I was new to the area, and wanted to find out more, but also because I am always interested in the public presentation of towns, organisations, political parties. Even given that South Africa was under apartheid at the time, I was struck by the total absence of a single black face or organisation in this comprehensive guide to the white side of town, as if the black township over the hill was non-existent. Thus I thought of making a work where one could only see one story – the white story – or the other story, about what happened to the Goniwe family – at any one time, depending on where you stand.
‘For 30 Years Next to His Heart’ is a fascinating focus upon one of the many tools of oppression employed by the government during apartheid. What was it you believed this passbook represented and how did you come across it?
The passbook was the ultimate symbol of the apartheid government’s system of controlling every aspect of the lives of black people. Every detail of their lives, where they were allowed to live, if they were currently employed, whether their taxes were up to date, were all contained in this one little book which had to be produced on demand. I had signed one for my gardener many times, in order to enable him to continue living in Cape Town. From 1987, it ceased to be necessary to carry a pass book under law, I decided to record this one page by page.
Could you elaborate on your choice of materials in ‘Pages from a Government Tourist Brochure’?
These pages are from a government tourist guide printed in 1936. I simply took words out of the text, enlarged them, and etched them into the steel frames. To use language about others that denigrates them is as confining and restricting as physically placing them behind bars. I emphasised this distance between viewer and the viewed even further by introducing a barrier which partially obscures the subject – a barbed wire fence, a layer of mesh curtaining, a museum chain.
Does the current political climate of South Africa influence your work?
Yes, it does. I have made one work about the Jacob Zuma rape case. And I often look back at earlier work, then take off in a new direction.
Last year I completed a multi-screen video installation called ‘There’s something I must tell you’ which is a series of six conversations between veteran activist women of the Mandela generation and their granddaughters. The topics range from the harrowing experiences the veterans went through under apartheid to whether, given the problems in South Africa today, they felt the sacrifices they had made had been worth it. The younger women respond and tell of their own dreams and hopes.
Which direction will your future work be taking?
I am about to start a major new project which will examine the transgenerational effect of apartheid violence – how that violence exercised against the older generation has impacted on their grandchildren. I have no idea yet what I will do, precisely, but I’m looking forward to finding out where it will take me.