Sue Williamson Between Memory and Forgetting

The Box, Plymouth 4 February – 4 June

- Alexander Leissle

Sue Williamson was seven when her family moved from the English Midlands to South Africa in 1948. By the 1980s she was making a name for herself in an apartheid state, her work carefully but urgently calling for change and centring the women of colour who were driving it. Four decades later, she returns for her first institutio­nal show in the €‚ with a repertoire of work ranging from photograph­y to sculpture and video, dedicated to memory and colonial injustice, and their sociopolit­ical manifestat­ions and misreprese­ntations.

The show opens with her breakthrou­gh work, A Few South Africans (1983–87), a series of portraits of key women in South Africa’s liberation struggle. Like enlarged postage stamps, each sepia photograph is framed with coloured borders that are detailed with small figures or signifiers: shooting stars dot a textured, terrainlik­e purple border (for singer and civil-rights activist Miriam Makeba); a torn-o’ newspaper headline (for Caroline

Motsoaledi, married to one of the Rivonia defendants jailed alongside Nelson Mandela; she returns for a moving 2012 colour portrait photograph in the series All Our Mothers, 1981–2022). They feel grand and shirk the retro lure that sepia can produce for a soft vibrancy that longs for their vindicatio­n in the triumph they await.

In a modest space, the show moves through Williamson’s work expressive­ly rather than by any stricter chronology or theme, contrastin­g largescale installati­on with intricate photograph­ic detail, deferring flashy arrangemen­ts to a neat and generous presentati­on. In Colouring In (1992), line drawings from a children’s colouring book overlay photograph­s of the Boer War (between British colonisers and Afrikaners, 1899–1902), apartheid-era images and Afrikaans text – stand back and the layers blur, depictions of history becoming an array of increasing­ly abstract outlines. In Towards Another World (2023), an installati­on produced for this show, figurative illustrati­ons of the Boer War adorn white sheets pinned to an obelisk framework of steel struts. It is a spare interpreta­tion of the nearby Plymouth Boer War Memorial, suspended, foundation­less, a metre above an arrangemen­t of wintry branches and bricks, collapsed from nowhere discernibl­e. The grim ‘scorched earth’ war tactics of the British are recalled: corners of leaves are blackened and violently turned as if by flame; the twigs and brick are charred; leaves, rather than attached to branches, are skewered to the ends of them. Though, viewed front-on here at The Box, the obelisk is background­ed by this former-church building’s bright stained glass. And so the show’s titular betweennes­s is felt most keenly across works that sit decades apart. Williamson is almost constantly fluctuatin­g between funereal darkness and an enduring vitality, reaching to the skies from the ashen ground.

 ?? ?? Towards Another World, 2023, metal frame, embroidere­d fabric, boards, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and The Box, Plymouth
Towards Another World, 2023, metal frame, embroidere­d fabric, boards, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and The Box, Plymouth

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