Sue Williamson || Distant Visions: Postcards from Africa

Sue Williamson 12 August - 18 September 2021 Goodman Gallery, Cape Town

Goodman Gallery is pleased to present Distant Visions: Postcards from Africa, an exhibition of new works from Sue Williamson.

Williamson’s new series of drawings, Postcards from Africa, continues the artist’s interest in the power of a small printed image to carry news of a specific moment in time to a far off audience, sometimes current, sometimes separated from the event by a century. Her early series of etchings The Modderdam Postcards (1978) was based on sketches made over seven days while witnessing the destruction by the apartheid state of an informal settlement near the airport in Cape Town. Postcards made from A Few South Africans, (1983-86), mixed media portraits of heroic women active in the struggle for liberation, were distributed not only across the country, but the world.

Most recently, the artist has turned her attention to vintage postcards of photographs taken by European colonisers in Africa in the first decades of the 20th century, who used the postcards as examples of the success of their missions, supposedly demonstrating the civilising effect of colonisation on the colonised, or presenting views of exotic Africa for the edification of folks back home.

Sourcing these postcards from museum archives or from the internet, Williamson reverts to classic drawing techniques. She dips her pen into a bottle of ink, building up images with layers of intricate cross hatching, adding colour from a limited palette to reproduce the rural landscapes on the postcards, or capture the scenes of daily community life: harvesting, swimming, gathering wood.

In each drawing within the series, signs of habitation remain visible —dwellings, boats, a pile of coconuts, baskets — but the people who appeared on the original postcard no longer appear. The absence of the people from the landscape presents an uncomfortable tension from which a series of questions emerge — where are the people who used to live here? What happened to them? These questions point to the complexity of subverting the colonial gaze —how does one challenge the gaze while also taking care not to perpetuate violence through recirculation of images that re-invoke their ori-ginal racist and oppressive context?

Thus the Postcards from Africa series considers a critical moment in history and wrestles with the complex history of colonial expansion and conquest captured through the postcard industry. It also continues Williamson’s investigation into the history of slavery, dispossession and displacement, beginning with her 1997 installation, Messages from the Moat, which was a detailed record of the buying and selling of enslaved people in the Cape of Good Hope, and continued with Messages from the Atlantic Passage (2017) which referenced old shipping records to focus on the trans Atlantic slave trade.

Postcards hold traces of historical memory, and through her evocative ink drawings with their deliberate erasures, Williamson seeks to confront the painful and unresolved legacies of colonialism — an important juncture in world history that has never been fully reckoned with, and whose catastrophic effects continue to be felt by millions of dispossessed peoples across the globe. In this instance, the absence makes the violence visible.



Sue Williamson

Sue Williamson (b. 1941, Lichfield, UK) emigrated with her family to South Africa in 1948. Trained as a printmaker, Williamson also works in installation, photography and video. In the 1970s, she started to make work which addressed social change during apartheid and by the 1980s Williamson was well known for her series of portraits of women involved in the country’s political struggle.

Referring to her practice, Williamson says: " I am interested in objects, often very humble ones, and the stories behind them. I am interested in the media, in the subtext that runs behind newspaper reports, and in books which may seem mundane like a tourist guidebook. But most of all I am interested in people, in their stories, and in the exact words they use to describe their memories, experiences and expectations’.

Williamson has avoided the rut of being caught in an apartheid-era aesthetic, constantly re-assessing changing situations, and finding new artistic languages to work out her ideas.

In 2018, Williamson was Goodman Gallery’s featured artist at the FNB Joburg Art Fair, where she exhibited her work Messages from the Atlantic Passage, a large-scale installation of shackled, suspended glass bottles engraved with details taken from 19th century slave trade documents. This installation was also exhibited the previous year at Art Basel in Switzerland and at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India in 2018.

Williamson’s works feature in numerous public collections across the globe, including those at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA, Tate Modern, London, UK, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., USA, Wifredo Lam Centre, Havana, Cuba, Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa, and Johannesburg Art Gallery, South Africa.

Williamson has received various awards and fellowships such as the Bellagio Creative Arts Fellowship 2011, Italy, Rockefeller Foundation, the Visual Artist Research Award Fellowship 2007, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., USA and the Lucas Artists Residency Fellowship 2005, Montalvo Art Center, California, USA.

Sue Williamson lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa.