Sue Williamson casts a critical lens on South Africa’s painful past in her first UK solo exhibition

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Testimony, at Goodman Gallery, London, reflects on the violence and oppression of apartheid and complicates the post-apartheid period

Sue Williamson documents South Africa — its injury, violence and oppression. Throughout her career, she has meticulously recorded the ongoing struggle against social injustices inflicted by the apartheid regime (1948 to 1994). And themes of memory, identity, truth and justice course through her work. Her photo-based practice (coalescing installation, video, and photography) concerns what curator Okwui Enwezor described as the ‘post-apartheid moment’. A period that in its initial stages was framed as triumphant. However, it has revealed itself to be irreducibly complex. The prolonged illusion of unity and a ‘rainbow nation’ at peace with itself has slowly begun to unravel. 

Williamson’s latest show Testimony, is a solo exhibition presented by Goodman Gallery, London, and is available to view online until it opens to the public on 12 April 2021. It is Williamson’s first solo show in the United Kingdom and brings together work spanning three decades: A Tale of Two Cradocks (1994), Truth Games (1998), It’s a pleasure to meet you (2016), The Lost District (2016-), and That particular morning (2018).

It's a pleasure to meet you. 2016 © Sue Williamson, courtesy Goodman Gallery.

Testimony begins with Truth Games. The work is a configuration of text and image, which complicates our relationship with the truth. A series of 15 multimedia works — composed of laminated laser prints, wood, metal and plastic — highlight media reports and testimonies from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC was established in 1995 to facilitate an amnesty and reconciliation process by investigating gross human rights violations that took place in South Africa during the apartheid regime. The TRC invited perpetrators and victims to have a dialogue, to unearth the truth behind many pre-1994 crimes. 

In this series, three images, drawn from newspaper accounts of the hearings, compose each work: courtroom photographs of the victim and the perpetrator, divided by a still of the associated crime. Texts also sourced from newspaper-clippings concerning the hearings, and printed on transparent perspex slats, overlay the images. Each phrase functions as a testimony and a clue in the truth game. The game is grotesque, but it is a game nonetheless — opposing sides and clear instructions. 

Truth Games: Linda Biehl - understand the context - Mongezi Manqina. 1998 © Sue Williamson, courtesy Goodman Gallery.

Audiences can play the truth game by moving fragments of text across the triptych of images from left to right, and right to left, recounting the events and assessing the various accounts’ truthfulness. Through this game of revelation and concealment, one negotiates the truth. The game challenges viewers to question the supposed redeeming potential of truth: that the truth will set you free. And labels such as ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’, which seem so clear and absolute in other contexts, prove to be contentious. 

We see this in the piece: Truth Games: Joyce Seipei – as a mother – Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, 1998. Winnie Mandela was a victim of traumatic crimes by the nationalist government, and yet here she stands trial in the investigation of teenage activist Stompie Seipei’s murder. The hearing was meant to establish the degree of culpability of Mandela in the death of the teenager by the Mandela Football Club.

In her 2016 paper Post-Truth, compelling fiction, author Marsha Meskimmon posits that Williamson’s Truth Games demonstrates: “the many-sided truths that co-existed within apartheid South Africa were neither going to be unravelled by the statements of a singular victor or victim nor by claiming a totalizing knowledge of the events of the past”. Indeed, the project brings to salience the notion that what is often presented as objective-fact balances itself against personal beliefs. And that truth, which is the thing from which claims of knowledge flow, can be vehemently contested.

Truth Games: Joyce Seipei - as a mother - Winnie Madikizela- Mandela. 1998 © Sue Williamson, courtesy Goodman Gallery.

Williamson engages the haunting anxiety that comes with an awareness of the responsibility that freedom entails. She is always in dialogue with the witness (thereby taking on the role of the witness herself). And Williamson foregrounds her work in intimacy: intimacy with her subject-matter and intimacy with her collaborators. 

In the site-specific installation The Lost District (2016-), Williamson employs geographical markers. The markers embody District Six’s spirit and thereby resist the historical erasure of that community. The nationalist government initiated ‘forced removals’ when the area was declared whites-only by the 1950 Group Areas Act. Williamson paints a map of District Six on the wall, and hand-engraved glass ‘windows’ and painted brass signage hover over it, recalling the fabric of life in District Six. 

The Lost District: The Wonder Store © Sue Williamson, courtesy Goodman Gallery.

The installation is one among several works Williamson made about District Six throughout her career. Her involvement with the community developed through her participation in the Women’s Movement for Peace in the late 70s, a time when the Movement was concerned with the ongoing demolitions. Williamson explains, “of all the communities destroyed by forced removals by government decree, District Six, located as it was, near the centre of Cape Town, has retained the strongest hold on the public imagination. It is important to remember, though, that it is just one of many such communities bulldozed in the name of ideology, not only in South Africa but in many countries around the world”.

Before obtaining an Advanced Diploma in Fine Art at the University of Cape Town, Williamson worked as a journalist for several years. And perhaps this explains her impulse to bear witness and expose injustices. Williamson’s practice stretches beyond identifying, documenting and exposing history. It sits in the view of artistic practice as an essential precondition for social change. On a recent visit to her studio in Cape Town, I ask her why history matters, to which she responds: “History is important. Knowing where we come from is important because the richness of who we are comes from a sense of understanding what lies behind us. But knowing the truth is only one factor. Unfortunately, there are all kinds of factors which contribute to changing an unequal society.”

Testimony opens at Goodman Gallery, London, from 12 April 2021.

Nkgopoleng Moloi

Nkgopoleng Moloi is a writer based between Cape Town and Johannesburg. She is currently studying for an MA in Contemporary Curatorial Practices at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Her work has appeared in Elephant Magazine, Contemporary And (C&), Mail & Guardian, and ArtThrob.