A medium for the message
The important things that marginalised or overlooked people have to say are presented as art in her works, Sue Williamson tells Jonathan Ancer
While doing research on the spyturned-apartheid assassin Craig Williamson, I stumbled upon a series of powerful portraits of women involved in SA’s struggle. The image I was interested in was of the anti-apartheid activist Jenny Schoon. A parcel bomb that Williamson sent to the Schoons killed Jenny and her six-year-old daughter Katryn in Angola in 1984.
The image of Jenny was rich with poignant details about her life and about her death. It was like a visual poem. The series was called A Few South Africans. I added the name of the artist, Sue Williamson, to my list of people to interview. One day I punched “Williamson” into my e-mail search prompt to find an article someone had sent to me about the killer, and up came a thread from members of my stretch class.
The stretch class is Cape Town’s best-kept secret. Among the stretchers was a message from “Sue Williamson”.
For two years, the internationally renowned artist whose work confronted the apartheid government had been dog-stretching and caterpillaring on a mat near me.
After the next class, I tapped her on the shoulder. “Craig Williamson,” I said.
Sue (I can’t call her “Williamson”) looked horrified. “No relation,” she spluttered. I explained that I wanted to talk to her about her artwork featuring Jenny Schoon.
Fast-forward five years to the Covid era. The stretch class was put on pause and resumed when President Cyril Ramaphosa awarded the country level 1 status. After a class I asked Sue about an artist’s life in the lockdown. It turns out there’s no rest for the wickedly creative — not even in a pandemic.
Sue has had exhibitions all over the world: London, New York, Paris, Italy and Cape Town.
She is one of SA’s most respected artists. She uses multimedia, etchings, photos, video, installation and, recently, augmented reality to explore memory, identity and justice in her work. She tells stories of our freedom and our foibles, our tragedies and our triumphs. As one critic noted, Sue’s activism bleeds into her art.
We’re at her studio in Salt River, where Sue talks about her journey into art and activism.
She was born in England and her family came to SA in 1948 when she was eight. She wanted to be a reporter and after matric worked at the Daily News in Durban, where women reporters were banished to the social pages. She got married and along with her husband went to live in New York, where she worked as a copywriter during the 1960s hedonistic Mad Men era of advertising.
One of the commercials she made was for breakfast cereal in the shape of letters, called AlphaBits. Her tagline was “The cereal that means something”. The commercial was directed by Hugh Hudson, who went on to win an Academy Award for Chariots of Fire.
Sue hadn’t taken art at school and didn’t consider herself as having any particular talent. One holiday, though, she shared a summer cottage with a woman who taught art and was always sketching. It seemed like fun so Sue started sketching too, and then enrolled at the Art Students League of New York.
In 1969, after Sue’s daughter was born, the family returned to SA. Apart from writing a satirical column for the Sunday Tribune (her first column had then prime minister BJ Vorster waking up to find he was a domestic worker named Vorsterina and didn’t have a passbook) she wasn’t politically active. After the 1976 Soweto uprising she felt it was no longer possible to go on doing nothing, and she joined the newly formed and multiracial Women’s Movement for Peace.
“We’d go to restaurants as a group of women and try to get served. We never were, but we’d make it unpleasant for everybody around us and embarrass the restaurant. We would go to the beach with all the children and wait to be ordered off,” Sue recalls.
The group also focused on fighting demolitions. When the bulldozers came to demolish the homes of the 6,000 people in the Modderdam informal settlement camp in Cape Town, Sue and her comrades formed a human chain across the road.
She was bearing witness as an activist. She made sketches of the scenes, which became a series of small etchings called the Modderdam Postcards.
“I made one of a woman sleeping under a piece of corrugated iron and the caption was as if it were a government official saying, ‘She’s here illegally she must go back to the Transkei.’
“The postcards allowed me to play with the idea of portraying an image and a message that’s at variance with it. It was a way to make a statement without having to say, ‘Oh these poor people!’ ”
For Sue it was a way to make art that addressed social issues. She was not just bearing witness as an activist, she was bearing witness as an artist, too.
“The Women’s Movement for Peace gave me access into a whole other world. I never felt I had the right to say anything as a white woman, but joining the movement, and spending time with people and listening to their stories, gave me my subject and my voice.”
One of Sue’s etchings was printed as a real postcard as a consciousness-raising tool in the fight against demolitions. Within days of publication, the printed postcard was listed as banned in the Government Gazette. Her lawyer wrote to the Publications Board to ask why.
“The reply said, ‘While the postcard is not without artistic merit it is only telling one side of the story’,” Sue chuckles and repeats: “‘While the postcard is not without artistic merit …’ I thought that was very cute.”
After Modderdam was knocked down the government aimed its bulldozers at the Crossroads settlement. The Women’s Movement for Peace joined the fight to save the community.
“The spirit of the community was amazing. The people never believed they would be moved. The women were so resilient,” says Sue.
While she was in Crossroads Sue began working on the powerful portraits of powerful women that became her iconic series A Few South Africans.
“I wanted to make a series that the black community could say, those are the women that we respect, those are our heroines. At the same time, I wanted to make the white community see that here are a lot of women who are doing really strong stuff.”
Forty years later the postcards are still on fridges all over the country.
Anti-apartheid icon Helen Joseph opened the first A Few South Africans exhibition, at Gallery International in Cape Town, and said: “Sue has taken our history out of the cupboard, and she’s hung it on the wall.”
“That was such a relief,” says Sue. “I thought, Oh, Helen! I felt this huge burden roll off my shoulders, because she saw it as an important thing to do.”
Sue is sensitive about the way she documents people’s lives; she doesn’t make art about people, she makes art with people; she collaborates.
“I’ve had to face up to the notion about who speaks for who, and about white artists who make work about the pain of black people and then profit off it,” she says.
“I think of myself as a medium, in a sense, through which important things that people have to say can be presented through the medium of art.”
Her art gave Benjy Borrageiro, who was dying of Aids, a voice.
Sue’s project From the Inside was a series of messages inscribed in public places. Each message was a statement by an HIV-positive person about something important they had learnt since they became infected. The statement was attributed to a specific person, so it was not just an anonymous piece of graffiti. The gallery work was a double image — a portrait photograph of the person flanked by a photo of the wall with their message. One of the first messages was Benjy’s, which was made at the height of Thabo Mbeki’s Aids denialism in 2000.
On a wall beneath a grubby Cape Town underpass next to the Gardens Shopping Centre his message reads: “I’m sick of Mbeki saying HIV doesn’t cause Aids.”
“Benjy had been depressed and when this graffiti went up his friends phoned to say they’d seen his message. A radio station interviewed him. It was empowering for him; he felt that finally he was having a voice.”
He died two weeks later.
Somebody painted over “Mbeki”, but they didn’t paint it out well, so people would look closer to make out what had been obscured — which drew even more attention to it.
Sue attempts to make visible people who have been made invisible — which is the theme of perhaps her best-known work, For 30 years next to his heart.
She takes out a small, innocent-looking “book”, but it’s anything but innocuous; it’s a brutal symbol of subjugation to the apartheid state, a hated instrument of control. It’s the passbook Ngithando John Ngesi was forced to carry with him from 1955 until the pass laws were repealed in 1987.
Sue had gone to the Black Sash advice office and asked if anybody had a passbook they would be prepared to lend her. She needed one for the design of the cover for a book.
“Mr Ngesi said I could have his. It was full of signatures, stamps and bureaucratic details.”
This was in 1990, and Sue was intrigued about why he still carried it with him three years after he didn’t have to.
“I put it down to the fact that it was such a habit of fear of what would happen if he didn’t have it, which is why he couldn’t not have it,” she says.
The two produced a collaborative piece documenting the 30-year life of his passbook.
The work documents 49 pages, arranged in a seven-by-seven grid.
Ngesi told Sue he didn’t want the passbook back. She had given him a reason not to carry it any more.
“Doing the work I do has given me access to so many different kinds of people in so many issues. I’ve really valued that it’s brought such richness and interest to my own life,” she says.
Sue also documented the District Six forced removals through the eviction of residents like community leader Naz Gool-Ebrahim in 1981.
“Naz was preparing for Eid and there was this knock on the door. It was a government official who handed her a 30-day eviction notice. She slammed the door in his face and wrote on the wall opposite the front door, ‘Welcome to the Last Supper’.”
Sue collected rubble and demolition material — doors, windows — and plonked them in the middle of Cape Town’s pristine Gowlett Gallery. A tape, recorded over a six-month period, played the voices and sounds of the district. She titled the installation, The Last Supper.
“There was a lot of publicity about it, and the security police came to see what I had done, which pleased me,” she says.
What she wasn’t pleased about was the menacing midnight phone calls she received, calling her “a dirty commie bitch” and threatening to hurl petrol bombs through her window. She mentioned the calls to her friend, the city councillor and anti-apartheid activist Eulalie Stott, who said, “Oh, it’s the security police, we’re going to call them in and tell them to stop.”
Sue thought this was a very bad idea, but Stott went ahead.
“Two policemen arrived to take a statement and Eulalie said, ‘Which of you gentlemen has been phoning Mrs Williamson?’ There was dead silence and then one said coldly, ‘We’ve got better things to do than to phone Mrs Williamson.’ I never had another phone call after that.”
However, recently Sue did have another midnight rude awakening, but this time it wasn’t the police. It was the sound of someone yodelling in her bathroom.
“I lay there quite anxious,” she says. “And then I finally got up and had a look.”
Sue has a collection of snow globes from around the world, including one from Switzerland, which yodels when picked up. She keeps it in her bathroom.
So when she woke up she knew there wasn’t someone yodelling but figured an intruder had picked up the snow globe. When she went to the bathroom there was no-one there.
It was only the next day, when she learnt that Cape Town had been shaken by an earth tremor, that Sue realised the snow globe had been dislodged, causing it to yodel.
Each globe is from a place she has exhibited — and there are dozens of them on a shelf in her studio. If there’s one thing in the world that epitomises kitsch it’s snow globes: they’re cheap, trashy and superficial — everything Sue’s artwork is not.
I’ve had to face up to the notion of … white artists who make work about the pain of black people
The security police came to see what I had done, which pleased me