By a Correspondent
Sue Williamson has been a key figure on the South African art scene since the early 1980s when she produced A Few South Africans, a groundbreaking series of portrait prints featuring women in the struggle against apartheid.
Part of Sue Williamson's Exhibition
Voices, which opens at the Goodman Cape on February 19, is Williamson’s first solo exhibition in Cape Town in a number of years. Important selected work from the past three decades will be shown alongside her latest two series – Other Voices, Other Cities, an international series of projects documented in photographs, and The Diaries of Lady Anne B. Also on view will be Last Supper at Manley Villa, a portfolio of black and white photographs taken in the home of one family in the final days of District Six in 1981.
The theme running through all of these rather different works is that of personal history, and in many cases, the exact words people use to express themselves and to describe their situations.
Williamson’s work has always been about addressing social issues and mediating contemporary history through the people who are living through it. After the end of apartheid she addressed the stories that came to light during the hearings at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and subsequently addressed the HIV/AIDS pandemic in a moving series entitled From the Inside.
Extending her attention beyond South Africa, Williamson’s Other Voices, Other Cities examines what it means, in this age of globalization, to live in a particular place. Why do the residents of a city choose to live there, and if there were one message that would express the essence of that city, what would it be?
Williamson approaches the project by gathering together a group of young artists and others and asking them to workshop this question. At the end of the workshop the participants vote on the most popular statement. This statement is then made up in large cardboard letters, and the participants pose in the city, holding up the letters to spell out their message. On almost every occasion, there have been difficulties with local authorities in getting the photographs taken.
At a time when so much of the world is grappling with accelerated globalization, the dialogue created by the residents of the different cities is engaging and revealing. The cities featured in the series so far are Havana, Harare, Johannesburg, London, Bern and Berlin. Other cities like Beirut, Beijing and New York are in the planning.
Last year, Williamson undertook a large-scale commission at Cape Town International Airport on a 30-metre glass wall, producing a work entitled A Random History of Cape Town, 1499 – 1994. Research for this project led her to the diaries of Lady Anne Barnard, wife of the British Colonial Secretary of the Cape Colony. From 1797 to 1800 Lady Anne wrote freely and openly of daily life in Cape Town, bearing witness to the treatment of the ‘Hottentots’, the intrigues, the babies of suspicious parentage, the fears of a slave revolt, the floggings, the fleas, the food … the complex picture she paints of early colonialism throws light on later history.
In The Diaries of Lady Anne B, Williamson draws on Lady Anne’s writings and sketches to present a series of monotypes. With this work, Williamson, who trained as a printmaker, returns to the mark of the hand.
Williamson’s work forms part of almost every museum collection in South Africa and is also included in many international art institutions and private collections. She was recently honoured with the Rockefeller Foundation Creative Arts Fellowship for 2011, and will take up her three-month residency at the Bellagio Center in Italy.
Posted By: Diana Achieng
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