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Siphoning identity – Sue Williamson

June 18th, 2010

Filed under: ART & DESIGN

The bus terminal at Cape Town airport

I had the esteemed honour of meeting South African artist and writer, Sue Williamson at an MU lecture this evening. The purpose of her talk was to give context to the current exhibition at MU, For Those Who Live in It;,’it’ being possibly “a globalised metropolis”, “a cutting edge art scene” or “a context existing in dynamic tension with the effects of politics, economics, culture and history,” according to the exhibition notes. What does it mean to be young/black/white/gay/straight/an artist today, in South Africa? What does it mean for South Africans or for anyone else who wants to know? An intimate group of 30 engaged audience members drank in the images and stories that Sue proffered.

For me, a complete South African contemporary art novice, Sue introduced a dynamic, complex and challenging context to explore one’s identity, yet it was exciting to attempt to take in. Others, such as Gert and Janneke Rebergen from Zutphen who sat next to me – and happen to own  art gallery, Izart, specialising in South African art – used their audience with Sue as a chance to lobby for collaboration: they want to provide more opportunities to the less advantaged artists in the Limpopo area up north of the country. These young people have a lot to say but lack the tools and infrastructure. There it is again, that theme of identity emerging.

Sue’s a storyteller, which makes sense given her profession, or rather, her vocation. I think her warmth is why she is so directly involved in so many projects, such as her work in the transformation of museum visitors to include more non-white patrons. She recently held workshops with disadvantaged high school students and helped them see that a portrait can take any form, even say, a bunch of washing tubs which, if you put your head inside one, you can hear a tape recording of a person’s story: a narrative about what it means to be another person.

She told us interesting facts: like, that artist Nicholas Hlobo, celebrated artist at the Michael Stevenson gallery, is an outed, gay, black artist who was brought up so traditionally that he was taught how to knit socks. She showed us Kendall Geer’s Fuck Face, the marvellous typographic art piece where his head is blackened and stamped with stylised lettering; but how it evolves over time from a typographical treatment of words like Fuck Face, to Love or Trust or Hope etc. The medium shifts from being Kendall’s own penitent abuse-inviting head, to become bead aprons woven by artisans of the highest calibre. And there is of course Mary Sibande who farewells her unconventionally sculptured servant character Sophie, by depicting her in an electric blue dress, astride a rearing horse in a salute to the historical painting convention (which means that the character will shortly die). Then there was the random, 8mm amateuristic video about a political assassin-slash-deranged person and his multi-faceted sense of self. What does it mean to be those people and how does where they are, South Africa, help them make sense of all that as well as define them?

F*&k Face - Kendall Geers

Nicholas Hlobo's "weird" rubber and textile sculptures

Sophie takes her leave

Of course we saw some of Sue’s work, such as Mr John Ngesi, a man like many others, who had carried his dreadful passbook of legitimacy around all throughout the apartheid regime. He wore it in his breast pocket every day, for thirty years (For Thirty Years, Next to his Heart, 1990). There was also the marvellous commission for Cape Town airport’s International Bus Terminal, for which she chose a quintessential Cape Town landscape including Table Mountain and “the clouds that hang over it permanently.” (See picture at top of this entry). The vista has been sandblasted into the glass panel which is visible on both sides, but on one side she has handwritten 72 hand selected quotes from South African literature and other writing. Poetry, philosophy, and the last quote is of course by Nelson Mandela. I don’t know which one it is; my guess is that I will just have to go there and visit that bus terminal myself. And I might even look up Sue Williamson and say hello again, to continue our very pleasant conversation during the pause.

Some of the quotes up close, in one of the Table Mountain cloud bursts

I asked her how she went about compiling 40 years of contemporary South African art for the book South African Art Now. Her answer was softly uttered, yet it was straightforward. “I was rather autocratic about it. I chose what I liked.” The book itself is beautiful and impressive, covering more than 100 prominent and emerging artists and many types of media; a range of powerful works that serve as a reflection of society during those dark apartheid years and the period of reconciliation and transformation since its fall. The book was a commissioned piece, from HarperCollins New York, and the brief was to document the modern art canon from apartheid to the present day – well, to  just before the current generation of artists she spoke about this evening. Sue and I went on to talk about identity in language, and my attempts to become bilingual (which will never be realised). “Even though there are 11 official languages in South Africa, many middle class black families are choosing  not to teach their children their local languages. Which is a real shame, and has a drastic impact on identity.”

I am still so thrilled to have met Sue, that I’ll have to go back and re-absorb the whole exhibition another day, and tell you about it. Sue’s lecture was educational, engaging, multi-media, and warm, authentic, with a twist of humour, just like Sue. I think the audience was treated to a few hours with her and have left thinking a bit harder about the question of identity and contemporary reality – in South Africa, of course, but also in their own lives.

And you thought they were annoying at regular size - another object to define South African identiy is the vuvuzela
For Those Who Live in It is on at the MU, in De Witte Dame on Emmasingel in Eindhoven, from May 21 – August 1, 2010

One last note on identity: to my “South African friend” that I mentioned in the linked blog entry … I should have said that she is from Zimbabwe and relocated to South Africa! But as it became evident throughout the lecture, South Africa is a place where many peoples from all over the world can call home.

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