Sue Williamson

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Biographical information

Synopsis:

South African Artist and writer

First name: 
Sue
Last name: 
Williamson
Date of birth: 
1941
Location of birth: 
Litchfield, England

Sue Williamson was born in Litchfield, England in 1941. Her family immigrated to South Africa in 1948. Williamson studied at the Art Students' League in New York from 1963-65. In 1983 she was awarded an Advanced Diploma in Fine Art from the Michaelis School of Fine Art, Cape Town (UCT).

Williamson was trained as a printmaker, but works predominantly in installation, photographic images and video, addressing social issues pertaining to civil activism, citizenry, senses of community or aspects of contemporary history as told from the perspectives of individuals. Her work extends from her previous occupation as a journalist, and is as such context-driven: 'I think that my early work in newspapers is quite formative in my art work because of that sort of interest in people's exact words and precise narratives’. [1]

In the 1980s, Williamson became known for her series of photo-etchings and screenprint portraits foregrounding the importance of women in the country's political struggle. A Few South Africans (1983-85)  is a visual narrative attempt at filling the representational absence of people and events during Apartheid, giving a tangible and iconic visibility to female leaders and women of courage who were active in the fight against Apartheid, like Elizabeth Paul, Maggie Magaba, Winnie MandelaLilian NgoyiAnnie SilingaNokukhanya LuthuliHelen JosephAlbertina Sisulu, Amina Cachalia, Caroline Motsoaledi, Virginia Mngoma and Charlotte Maxeke. The work asks questions about civic (and representational) duty and memorialisation.  Williamson notes the importance of revisiting history as a way of understanding a nation’s present: ‘We’re in the process of coming to terms with the past. I think that, before we can move on, we have to reach a point where we can find our way to a solution and say: OK, we’ve confronted our past as intensively as possible.’ For Thirty Years Next to His Heart (1990), Williamson copied all 49 pages of John Ngesi’s passbook, as a relic of the oppressive legislations of Apartheid (indexed here as tracking the movement of Black citizens), and as a document towards the dignity of transitional democracy.  Her Better Lives series (2003) is a sequence of six filmed portraits of immigrants that came to Cape Town from other parts of the African continent to secure new lives for themselves and their families.  The series features pre-recorded testimonies and accounts being played back to the subjects who listen to their statements whilst being filmed in a photo booth with a backdrop of Table Mountain and a taxi rank. They listen to their stories of surviving in an often hostile and xenophobic South Africa, where competition for work and resources is fierce. Here Williamson affords a presence to the marginalised, stepping aside to let the voices of the immigrants themselves be heard. Ten years later, Williamson produced a major work of a multi-screen video installation There’s something I must tell you (2013), which consists of conversations between women veteran Struggle activists and their granddaughters. A matrilineal transference of knowledge around the horrors experienced under Apartheid as well as the question of transgenerational trauma and how violence inflicted upon the older generation impacts the youth today – surface in relation to the dreams and desires articulated by the younger women. Given the at times neocolonial and corrupt status of contemporary South Africa, several of the older women also question the worth of their sacrifices. The work was central to Williamson’s exhibition at the Iziko Slave Lodge, Cape Town, in 2014.

Williamson has participated in several major exhibitions on South African art, including, Art Towards Social Development, Culture and Resistance Festival, National Museum and Art Gallery, Gaborone, Botswana (1982), Tributaries, Museum Africa, Johannesburg, South Africa, (1985), Liberated Voices: Contemporary Art from South Africa, Museum for African Art, New York, USA (1999), The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1954-1994, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Centre, New York, USA (2001) and  The Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life, International Centre of Photography, New York, USA (2012).  She has shown in the Venice Biennale in 1993, Havana Biennale (1992, 1994, 2006), Biennale of Sydney (1992), the Johannesburg Biennale (1997) and Dakar Biennale (2004).  Williamson was one of the many artists included in Brenton Maart’s curated South African Pavilion Imaginary Fact: Contemporary South African Art and the Archive at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013.

From 1991-2 Williamson served as Chairperson of the Visual Arts Group, part of the Cultural Workers Congress in Cape Town. She is a Founding Member of the arts organisation 'Public Eye', and founding editor of Artthrob, a website on contemporary art in South Africa (www.artthrob.co.za), which also publishes extracts from her diary.  Williamson has written three seminal volumes on South African art; South African Art Now (2009: Harper Collins), Art in South Africa: the Future Present (with Ashraf Jamal, 1996: David Philip Publishers) and Resistance Art in South Africa (1989: David Philip Publishers). Writing on the latter, Chika Okeke-Ogulu notes, “...the book is as much an account of resistance art in the 1980s as it is Williamson’s manifesto for an expanded horizon of formal possibilities within late 20th-century South African art. It is, moreover, and crucially, a testimony to Williamson’s understanding of the artistic life as an imaginative journey propelled by an ethical imperative and faith in art’s signifying power.” [2]

Today Williamson is an internationally recognised artist who frequently exhibits on major museum shows around the world. She is represented by the Goodman Gallery and her work is included in most South African and several international museum collections. Currently, Williamson works and lives in Cape Town, South Africa. 

Endnotes

[1] Sue Williamson in Barbara Pollack, 2006, Sue Williamson, Contemporary Magazine No. 86, p. 37

[2] Chika Okeke-Ogulu, 2016, Where art and activism merge, in Mail & Guardian, 26 February.


References:
• Bester, R. (2005), Review of Sue Williamson’s better lives exhibition, from  artsouthafrica, (March -April), [online], Available at www.artsouthafrica.com [Accessed 08 September 2011] 
• Gurney, K, (2003), SUE WILLIAMSONError! Hyperlink reference not valid. from ARTTHROB, November, [online] Available at www.artthrob.co.za  [Accessed 08 September 2011] 
• Sue Williamson, from the Goodman Gallery, [online] Available at www.goodman-gallery.com/search [Accessed 08 September 2011]
• Bedford. E and Perryer. S (2004). 10 Years 100 Artists: Art In A Democratic South Africa. Published by Struik
• Thanks to Sue Williamson who provided information for this biography.

Last updated : 22-Mar-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 17-Feb-2011