Legendary South African conceptual artist, author and educator Sue Williamson can be counted among those pioneering women who have changed the game for the next generation of artists working in the field.
Williamson, who writes an extraordinary timeline of women in the arts for House and Leisure‘s Art issue, often doesn’t mention her own contribution to the rise of the field, so we caught up with her to give you the inside story of her game-changing practice, and what’s in the works for her forthcoming body of work.
what was it like when you first entered the contemporary art world versus what it’s like today?
if someone is new to your work, which work would you suggest they start with to get a sense of your practice?
tell us a bit about your upcoming work at the FNB JoburgArtFair.
At the FNB JoburgArtFair I will be showing part of a large installation called Messages from the Atlantic Passage, which is based on research into the shipping records of vessels that loaded captives taken from West Africa and transported them to the Americas to be sold into slavery. That journey, repeated more than 30 000 times, was known as The Atlantic Passage. My work presents three voyages, with the name and details of each person on that voyage engraved into a bottle. The bottles are suspended in nets, or hanging from chains, over three loading ‘tanks’, filled with water. Water drips down from the nets. Each tank has the name of one ship, with the detail of that voyage, the date, and the number of people who embarked at the start, and disembarked at the end. A scanty memorial at best, but one that uses the limited information we have.
what’s next for Sue Williamson?
A lot. I am working with a young artist called Siyah Mgoduka on a new video, which we will shoot in the next month. I am also presenting Messages from the Atlantic Passage on the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India in December, where it will be staged in a vast, high-ceilinged storeroom. The floor will be flooded and a deck will be built over it, so it will be like walking on the deck of a ship, looking up at the nets, with the hanging bottles and the dripping water. I’m very excited about that.
I am also doing a new installation for the Kochi Biennale, called One Hundred and Nineteen Deeds of Sale, about Indians brought by the VOC to Cape Town in the 1600s to work at the Castle of Good Hope. That will kick off at the Castle on 14 September before it goes to India. For that, we are writing out deeds of sale extracted from the Cape Town Deeds Office on linen shirts and lengths of cloth sent from India. In Cape Town, it will be part of the Live Art Festival, in a section called Intimacies and Biography.
Then there’s a portrait for a special issue of French Vogue to be exhibited at La Monnaie de Paris, which I must finish by October. And a video made in Rwanda that’s at post-production stage. And next year … well, the rest can wait till next year.