Beauty offset by stark reality

Sue Williamson combines slick aesthetic devices with hard, cutting edge facts of life.

Sue Williamson combines slick aesthetic devices with hard, cutting edge facts of life.

Published Feb 23, 2016


THE PAST LIES AHEAD. By Sue Williamson. At the Goodman Gallery, until March 2. DANNY SHORKEND reviews

AN AESTHETICS of repetitiveness, words that were once spoken, images that have faded and memories lost to history. Sue Williamson, described by Robert Storr, former director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as “one of the foremost artists of her generation”, has produced a memorable series of works that speak on many levels: the continuity or repetitiveness of history; images and words used and reused in order to find the truth of the matter in political and personal terms.

Williamson is a social commentator and combines slick aesthetic devices with hard, cutting edge facts of life. This is almost contradictory, yet it is precisely in this tension, that we are both lured into the artwork and then come away thinking about the issues, the image thus returns to text as it were.

Williamson ran a series of workshops where she explored the power of place and its identity to various citizens. At the end of the workshop, a consensus was reached on how best to exemplify their feelings around that particular place.

This resulted in a photographic exploration of firstly Johannesburg with a caption that read: who is Johannes and secondly, an image of the place de Bastille in Paris that read: the ship will not sink. In both images, participants each hold up a letter that reads as that particular meditation on the city.

In the first case, archival records not withstanding, it is unclear what the origins and indeed, the identity of Johannesburg is and in the chaotic maelstrom, the very busyness of the street, with all its variety and dynamism in the city centre, the place does indeed appear without clear parameters and order.

In the case of Paris, recently under siege with terrorist attacks, there is a sense that the citizens will not give up, that Paris is the city of eternal optimists and is alive and vibrant, a cultural epicentre of much that is good, whether under Isis threat or in the past, under Nazi occupation.

Perhaps the most alluring piece is her District Six project entitled, the Lost districts, where oddly shaped glass and steel and engraving on the glass produce shadows of lost worlds, memories of a place that was. While I was there, the artist was busy working/engraving on the gallery window that overlooks the remains of District Six, in an attempt to overlay the past and present with a representation of what she sees and what one would have seen in the 60’s in the bustling aliveness of the place. She draws from photographs of the past and only table mountain looms large: nature is always persistent over large stretches of time. Yet all shall succumb in time as all is in flux. In this sense past, present and future are in fact fused.

There is also a series of works that deal with President Jacob Zuma’s 2006 rape trial allegations. Williamson collected the newspaper cutouts of the “event” and it is patently clear that the focus is on Zuma, both in terms of images that sustain his perceived power and the fact that the victim is hardly ever shown or apparent as a victim.

It is rather frightening to think that he may have been guilty and yet, the rest is history. He escaped the accusation and is still “leading’ SA into an uncertain space, as the recent debacle at the State of the Nation revealed.

Then there are well-made works that deal with the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) of 1998: lost words, fleeting images, text behind texts, cover ups, lies, deception and the coming to terms with the past are well-conceived – the artist uses various aesthetic devices to deal with issues.

“Events” such as Winnie Mandela and the assassination of Dr Asvat; a woman’s tale of the murder of her father by Captain John Sterrenberg and an interesting memorial to the TRC, a tomb-like, sinister, yet beautiful “sculpture” made from waxed fibreglass and printed glass sheets. Again: the employment of aesthetic devices, its sheer beauty offset by the stark realities the artist investigates sets up a dynamic tension that requires engagement with the work.

There are other social issues dealt with, such as HIV Aids, and the Anglo-Boer war and its parallel to what would almost have been the demolition of Crossroads.

The exhibition coincides with the launch of a monograph covering the artists career , published by the prestigious Italian art house, Skira. Well worth a visit.

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