Sue Williamson: memory and identity
With several exhibitions and projects on the go, Sue Williamson remains one of SA’s most prolific artists
According to Aboriginal tradition, Australia is crisscrossed with songlines that trace the routes taken by the ancestors when they sang the landscape, its animals and its people into being. We can apply a similar analogy to SA, except in our case it is storylines that have shaped the land. Rage and heartbreak have carved our ravines, hope has raised our mountains and love and forgiveness form the tempo of our seas.
It’s easy to drown in the noise when politics and people are in discord, but that is precisely when we need to pay particular attention to the stories that are being told.
Storylines are what shape much of Williamson’s work. In a sense it is a return to oral tradition, a contemporary platform where generations can hand down their stories and use them to make sense of memory and identity. Alternatively, she uses her work as a conduit to tell neglected or forgotten stories, like Lost District (2016) in which she engraved a panoramic view into the window of Cape Town’s Goodman Gallery. The gallery overlooks District Six, so Williamson referenced historic images to carve the outlines of the buildings that were demolished.
The lines cast shadows of the etched houses and churches on the wall opposite, creating a ghostly reference to the buildings that once stood.
By creating opportunities for people to tell the stories of their past, she creates space for South Africans to explore the ambiguity, attitudes and silences of our present situation
"There’s always this sense [in the world] of wanting to pin down the moment. What is happening right now is ‘the important thing’," she says.
"But my work is intended to open up dialogue. I want people to think about their own family history. What is it that we don’t know about our own history?"
Williamson has been on the art scene consistently since the early 1980s, but this is a bumper year for her. She has three shows in Paris, a photographic exhibition in Italy and two shows in the US. She’ll travel to New Delhi, for the Other Voices, Other Cities project at the invitation of a young Indian curator, Anushka Rajendran; and take part in Lucy’s Iris, an exhibition of work by African women artists at the Atlantic Modern Art Centre in Las Palmas.
The most exciting, however, is that Williamson is the only SA artist selected by Art Basel Unlimited, where she will show her new installation, Messages from the Atlantic Passage — a solo exhibition — in June. The "messages" are traces of soil in thousands of glass bottles which reference historical records of slavery from the 19th century: the name, age, sex, height and country of origin of one enslaved person.
Details of slaves who made the trip across the Atlantic are engraved onto each bottle.
Locally, her retrospective Can’t Remember, Can’t Forget is on at the George Bizos Gallery at the Apartheid Museum until the end of May. The title is drawn from oft-repeated refrains by participants during the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) — when perpetrators would say: "I can’t remember" and victims "I can’t forget."
The exhibition covers key moments in Williamson’s career and, in essence, traces a storyline through the past 20 years since the TRC. By creating opportunities for people to tell the stories of their past, she creates space for South Africans to explore the ambiguity, attitudes and silences of our present situation.
"It’s true for a lot of my work that people can say: ‘I’m listening to the information.’ I’m letting the story tell itself. [If you focus on] people’s stories — on details of a specific person — you honour them by memorialising," she says.
This is evident in two new video installations that appear on the exhibition. It’s a Pleasure to Meet You and What is This Thing Called Freedom? crystallise how a younger generation of "born frees" are experiencing SA.
It’s a Pleasure to Meet You documents a conversation between Candice Mama and Siyah Mgoduka, two young adults whose fathers were killed by apartheid assassins. They share similar memories of the silence surrounding their fathers’ deaths and how they slowly uncovered the details, but in Mama’s case her family got to meet Eugene de Kock in a mediated discussion and chose to forgive him. Mgoduka, however, has no interest in forgiving his father’s murderers.
In a scene from the video Mama recalls how she asked De Kock if he could forgive himself: "And he looked at me and he said: ‘When you’ve done the things I’ve done, how can you forgive yourself?’ And I think at that moment I sat back and I saw the sincerity that just, was just in the room, I just saw it and ... I just couldn’t stop crying, and afterwards, I think my mom followed suit, crying and after a while, we just thought you know, ‘this is pretty much it’, you know?"
In response Mgoduka says: "I respect [you for] forgiving and having the opportunity to, to sit with him and kind of hear things from his side, and in some way getting into his mind ... [but] I have no ambitions of forgiving. Maybe I will grow older and wiser, but I have none of those ambitions of forgiving these men ..."
Talking about indifferent and arrogant attitudes of white South Africans, Mgoduka comments: "And something’s going to happen if you keep on being overlooked. The things are already happening, you know, if you keep on acting as if ... [apartheid didn’t matter]."
It’s a sentiment that is shared by Buhle Siwani in What is This Thing Called Freedom? when she says, "I mean, I’m angry. I know that a lot of people my age and younger are still very angry. We have this idea [that] we were sold, our parents were sold, a lie."
Further along, she comments, "So, you know, it’s just [that] we, we’ve had a lot of ... Conversations that I’ve been having with other people were around how the TRC robbed this country of the chance to heal. Not, not only heal, but the chance to go through the stage of anger. Which I think everyone — everyone is allowed to go through the stage of anger, at least to the next step. How can we say we forgive, and we’ve missed multiple steps in forgiving?"
If we trace the storylines through Williamson’s work we can see how certain themes repeat themselves time and again, but what changes significantly is the attitude to these themes. The stories indicate that SA is now on the precipice of a huge fault line. If we continue to ignore our stories we face devastation.
"I think things have changed. Young people [are] not so optimistic about SA," says Williamson. "Things are more ambiguous now. During apartheid it was very clear what side you needed to be on. Then there was this euphoria [when apartheid ended, but now] the injustice has gone on for so long and the imbalance is so great. We have an excellent constitution that is admired, but sadly the country doesn’t live up to the constitution and we see what lies ahead if these imbalances aren’t corrected."