Every interview I’ve ever read began with a gushing treatise on how ‘down to earth’ the interviewee seemed – sitting there, eating mortal food, unscripted, perhaps blushing at intrusive questions – but in this regard Sue Williamson confounded my expectations. South Africa’s Patron Saint of Early- to Mid-career artists and and Doyen of political New-Media art was as cool as a cucumber and far more articulate.
We sat down at the Goodman Gallery to discuss her show The Past Lies Ahead. The show is measured and dispassionate with hints of sensitive humour. It tackles the whole gamut of socio-political concerns facing SA and even extends as far as Berlin and Paris. The exhibition also corresponds with the Paris launch of a new Monograph, edited by Mark Gevisser.
What follows is an abridged transcript of the interview which took place on February 9th, 2016. I began by asking about the series of new photographs in which citizens of a city stand holding letters…
Isabella Kuijers: The people in the photographs seem to be speaking on behalf of a space, or a city, is that the intention?
Sue Williamson: It is… to ask people who actually live somewhere, through a process of workshopping, why they live somewhere and what they feel is the essence of the place. And if they had to tweet a message from the city, what that message would be.
IK: Was it difficult to find a message that everyone agreed on in the groups?
SW: I do it by asking people to come up with suggestions, which I write down on large pieces of paper and when we have eight or ten of those then people vote. Usually it get’s down to about three. Then we have a discussion that decides the final message.
IK: My first thought when I saw the paris one was to do with the overseas migration and the refugee crisis.
SW: That’s not really the intention but it’s certainly a possible reading of it. The motto of the city of Paris is ‘Fluctuat Nec Mergitur’ which means ‘tossed but not sunk’. It dates from 1358 when it was the slogan of the boatmen’s guild and was adopted as the official slogan of the city. It’s a statement of resilience – that no matter what happens Parisians will come through it.
IK: I notice that the groups of people featured in the photographs were small (often the same person holds a different letter in another frame) was there a sampling bias, do you think?
SW: You know, it’s always a very arbitrary process. I’m going somewhere where I don’t really have contacts and now i’ve got to get together a group of people who understand the process, who are prepared to come through to a workshop and then a couple of days later come to a photoshoot.
IK: I have to ask: What happened in Berlin?
SW: The police arrived asked what we were doing. We explained that it was an art project and that this was a message that was expressing the spirit of Berlin. They said that it was against the dignity of the Reichstag to shoot it on the steps of the Reichstag… Which is strange because the Reichstag has a lot of very nice artworks in it so you wouldn’t have thought that there would have been this problem. One of the people holding one of the letters is the curator of the Daimlin gallery and somebody else is a playwright, some of the others are students so there was a vociferous group arguing with the police. Anyway, after a long argument they eventually agreed that we could take the rest of the photographs but we couldn’t hold the letters anymore.
IK: I think that is a very silly way of censoring anything because it shows the police up even more. To me it’s like showing a naked person but blurring out the naughty bits, it makes people aware that there’s something there that’s being hidden from them.
SW: I think it made the artwork better – because it ‘s a bit suspicious if you can’t make a statement about the place you live. I’m glad the artwork captured that. It also makes me wonder why the Reichstag is so nervous.
IK: The tone differs quite drastically from city to city. I found the Johannesburg artwork quite comedic.
SW: Well nobody knows for which Johannes Johannesburg is named. That work is about a city that grew up so fast it didn’t ever quite clear up who it’s named for and what it’s own identity is.
IK: And the District Six artworks? They seem to show a kind of nostalgia?
SW: They are meant to represent windows onto the past. It’s a series called The Lost District.
I used old archival photos as references for the works and I distorted the views so that it looks as though they’re bursting out, it’s almost as if there’s a whirlwind that’s come through and picked up the windows and is tossing them. They’re not hung evenly, they are hung as if they’re being carried along. An interesting thing for me is that the only sharp line exists in the shadow.
IK: Let’s talk about Colouring In. This work uses an unusual colouring-in book as its source and it really makes me think about the absurdity of explaining violence to children. Where did you find the book – or did you make it?
SW: At the Boer war museum in Bloemfontein … and I was just struck by it, for that very reason, it’s hard to explain war to a child and how do you convey to Afrikaans children the particular point of view that it’s the afrikaners who were the losers of the Anglo-Boer War.
But that’s what the book does and the drawings are actually very crude … so thanks for thinking they were mine.
*Isabella beats a hasty, flustered retreat*
So that’s what it was about – the attempt to explain to an Afrikaans child what the Boer War was about and what his ancestors had suffered. It’s about the mothers and their children dying in concentration camps. I think around 20 000 died of starvation and malnutrition.
Mary Burton who was one of the TRC commissioners made the point that the afrikaners had been so hammered and beaten down they were determined to ensure that it would never happen again to them. So instead of being sympathetic as you’d think they would have been to other people suffering similar hardship and deprivation and trying to live together as families, they were not sympathetic at all.
IK: Would you say that there’s a parallel to the Israel/Palestine conflict in this work?
SW: Yes, I think there is. It’s something of a cautionary tale.
IK: I see there are lists and words on the frames?
SW: Those are the names of the boers who were sent overseas to concentration camps in British colonies and who died in those camps of typhoid, dysentery, pneumonia or other diseases.
IK: Another work that stands out is Pass the Parcel, Jacob it was fascinating to me that all the news clippings are from 2006 … it seems like he managed to pack years of controversy into just one year?
SW: 2006 was the beginning of the rape trial. When the case started I began keeping all the press cuttings and following it. I strongly suspected that he was going to be found not guilty.
IK: Well it certainly made for strange reading. I hadn’t known that the judge had wished Zuma happy birthday before handing out his verdict and that the zulu expression for vagina translates into “her father’s kraal”. It made me squirm. Because of the string inside the frames, one of my readings of the work was ‘give the man enough rope and he’ll eventually hang himself’.
SW: It is a possible reading. This is actually the second version of the piece. I was invited to make a piece of work for a project in tokyo in which artists had to make work that fitted into lockers in a station so I decided to make my piece a parcel with many layers. And each person that opened the locker had to remove one layer and then you had to put the parcel back for the next person and the last person would keep what was in the middle.
IK: I think there’s an interesting message about cultural relativism and the law in this work – whether or not he was found guilty of rape. It is a strange interplay between what feels like the West and Africa. This came through for me in From the Inside: Benjy too.
SW: That was from a series called From the Inside. It was at a time when there was a lot of silence around HIV AIDs. It was very shameful and if you had it, it was seen as a sign that you were promiscuous.
IK: I don’t think that stigma has entirely left us?
SW: No, I don’t think so either, but it is much more open now. At end of the 90’s people in some communities were completely ostracised. So I did a whole series where I asked people; if there was a message that they wanted to make public what would the message be? and part of the arrangement was that they had to put their name on it, so that it became a quote rather than just a piece of graffiti.
IK: It interacts with the adjacent work about Zuma’s rape case which also touches on the issue of AIDs, the woman he had sex with was HIV positive and an AIDs activist. That was the beginning of the fiasco around his claim that a shower after sex reduces the risk of contracting HIV.
SW: That was actually quite fortuitous. I wanted to put up the Zuma piece and I’ve always liked that Benjie piece. I mean, he was so ill then. When he was introduced to me by a friend of a friend he was nearly at death’s door. He was very lethargic and exhausted and it the idea that he would get a dig at mbeki in a very public place really pepped him up. And it seemed to work – his friends would call him up and say “hey Benjy! was that you?, Were those your words?”
After conversing with Sue, I got the impression that Williamson is an historian and an activist as much as she is an artist. Her work relies on collections of primary and secondary sources and ultimately aims to educate and promote reconciliation. Her personal feelings on the subjects of her artworks come across as secondary to the information she presents.