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A Few South Africans: Amina Cachalia

Sue Williamson
A Few South Africans: Amina Cachalia, 1984
Photo etching/screenprint collage
70 x 64cm

Made in the 1980s, a time when South Africa was still firmly under the grip of apartheid, A Few South Africans originated as a series that attempted to make visible the history of women who had made an impact on the struggle for liberation. The ‘Few’ in the title referred to the fact that the subjects of the portraits represented a small number of the many thousands of women who were involved in this struggle. In those years, news and photographs of these leaders never appeared in the white dominated press, so little was known about them. For her series, the artist herself took many of the portrait photos on which the photo-etchings are based and others were sourced from banned books in university libraries. Williamson placed her subject, who often gazes directly at the viewer, in the centre of the image, a centrality designed to give each woman the status of a heroine. Behind the women, details of their lives form a rich background landscape. Technically, the central image in each work is a photo-etching with other etching techniques added. The colourful frames are screenprinted on separate sheets of paper and collaged over the etched images, along with layers of coloured borders cut into zig zags. The frames, with their additional smaller images added in, extend the histories of each woman. In some, like the frames of Mamphela Ramphele and Virginia Mngoma. the extra images have been utilised as if in an African fabric design. The layered form of the frames refers to the way residents in Crossroads, a Cape Town squatter camp, elevated snapshots to small artworks by framing these images with coloured gift wraps and wall papers cut with zig-zag scissors. A critical part of the history of this series is that the individual portraits were printed as postcards, in order to make the images widely accessible to the general public. Distributed through a variety of alternative sources, one set reaching Nelson Mandela in jail, these postcards have been referred to as ‘one of the most important icons of the eighties’.