Iziko Slave Lodge, Cape Town
26.06.2014 – 30.06.2015
Sue Williamson’s ‘There’s something I must tell you’ (2014) forms a survey of our history from 1981 to 2013, and examines the involvement of several generations of black, colored, Indian and white women, in the struggle against apartheid. As the latter evolved out of the ideologies that bolstered slavery and colonialism, no venue could be more suitable than the Slave Lodge. It was constructed in 1679 as a fortress where the VOC’s imported slaves were quartered along with convicts and the mentally disturbed.
Its statement of intent proclaims From Human Wrongs to Human Rights and all temporary exhibitions pivot around this concept. Lalou Meltzer, the director of Social History, says her brief is to erase the divide between the didactic teaching of the history of slavery, and artists’ imaginative reinterpretation of this history. Mounting full-scale art exhibitions is a new departure, and this explains why the Lodge is hosting Williamson’s show. The character of her practice too justifies the choice of venue for this is an activist art that seeks to conscientize the public and bring about social and political change. Within the framework of a museum dedicated to freedom and the rights of man, every aspect of the show gains a richer resonance.
A photographic portrait of Amina Cachalia (1984) is situated at the entry. She is shown at the front door of her home with her arm extended across the barred safety gate – whether to keep us out, or welcome us in, remains undisclosed. The image introduces the theme of exclusion, of walls, gates, fences, barriers and boundaries.
Beneath it is an antiquated wheel-chair ramp that looks exactly like a gangplank. It leads us inside, and bids us to journey into the past, just as another ‘gangplank’ in the final gallery ushers us into the future metaphorically located behind the video screens.
We then pass into a small, windowless cube redolent of a high-security prison cell, or the impregnable strong-room of a bank. The penitential air is accentuated by three sets of massively thick, iron safe doors secured by redoubtable locks and bolts. Heavily embossed plaques identify the manufacturer – Chubb’s Lock and Safe of London. Metal columns define the centre of the room, and pick out the corners of the block of vitrines filled with memorabilia of the struggle.
This space memorializes a past generation of grandmothers, including activists like Annie Silinga. Painted on the walls are rectangles resembling enlarged sheets of lined paper from school exercise books. A vinyl text reads: ‘Remembering our grandmothers’. Koki pens strung from the walls and a set of library stairs are at the ready. The once empty rectangles are now completely covered in hand-written tributes from children to their grandmothers, and further scribbled messages spill over the walls. Such communications are the visual equivalent of the vox populi, giving ordinary people the opportunity to speak their mind, and participate in the exhibition.
The show’s title, ‘There’s something I must tell you’, is confiding, and the little missives strike a similarly intimate note, revealing that Williamson’s theme is not history with a capital H, but rather a weave of personal stories. The video and audio in the galleries beyond too employ the first person singular. There is a neat symmetry as women and their grandchildren are the themes of both the first and last gallery.
Space expands, light brightens, and the mood becomes buoyant in the next gallery which displays A Few South Africans (1983-7). These photo-etched portraits – some sourced from Williamson’s own photographs, others from found photos – form a hall of fame celebrating female stalwarts of the struggle with a triumphalism that outraged the public when Williamson first produced them. As we move from room to room, so we get to know the heroines more intimately as often they are portrayed at different junctures of their lives. Brightly colored, festive framing devices glorify them, and transform them into icons of heroism. These were inspired by the family photographs encased in borders of gift-wrap interspersed with ribbons, raffia and collage that are the folk art of informal settlements. Williamson uses tiered mounts, and every portrait comes to a vertical climax at the centre where triangles and semi-circles create a dome-like effect, hallowing the image, and turning it into a memorial to its subject.
Sepia tones lend these images an archival appearance. Collaged and screened details on the mounts surrounding the portrait contextualize the subject, and provide biographical data. In Miriam Makeba, we glimpse the diva, her childhood home in the Transkei and the mass burial after Sharpeville where some of her family lost their lives. There are shots of Miriam at the UN, Miriam with Samora Machel,and Miriam’s daughter and mother. A whirl of silver stars evoke her status as a stellar songstress. The collages are not seamless, and the disjunctions hint at the inassimilable, the impossibility of reconciling flagrant atrocity with ordinary human experience.
The ceilings creak eerily under the weight of footfalls on the floor above us, and everywhere there is a spooky sense of unseen presences, of the past awakening. The hoarse cry of the muezzin and Islamic chants reverberate through the space, and emanate from Last Supper at Manly Villa (1981-2008) in the third gallery where the sound track intersperses song and the spoken word, and the voices, accents, rhythms and cadences are all as typical of the mother city as the boom of the canon at noon.
This creates a highly evocative foil for the photographs which relate the harrowing story of Naz and Harry Ebrahim and their family who lost their home under the Group Areas Act. Before they left Manley Villa, where they had lived for over thirty years, the Ebrahims celebrated Eid, the Last Supper of the title. With its poignant photograph of a stricken Naz bravely looking out over the neighborhood from her home, Last Supper forms the emotional climax of the exhibition.
The penultimate gallery presents All Our Mothers, portraits of veterans of the struggle taken after the advent of democracy so that the tension evaporates. This provides a respite before the finale – a six-screen video installation, There’s something I must tell you which lends its name to the exhibition. We enter a dim chamber filled with two rows of four benches. The space between them recalls the nave in a humble chapel while the screens act as icons. We are witness to conversations between the aged struggle heroines and their granddaughters, real or surrogate. The pre- and the post-apartheid generations, compare their very different experiences of South Africa, and ask whether the struggle was worthwhile. This is a study in the generation gap, and what fascinated me was not what was said, but what was left unsaid, the psychological subtext in which the silences, hesitations, glances, gestures and expressions conveyed respect, tenderness, boredom, irritation, unspoken dissent and all the other ambivalences the young feel toward the old and vice versa.