Sue Williamson - 'From the Inside' at the Goodman Gallery
by Sean O'Toole
On a grassy stretch of road between Manzini and Big Bend in Swaziland, a lonely signboard proclaims: "Virginity is a good word to teach to your children". Further north along the same road, one that snakes into the northern highlands of a nation the UN estimates has a 25.25% HIV infection rate, lively hand-painted murals in the capital Mbabane admonish citizens to unite against HIV and AIDS. The crisis of communicating Southern Africa's perilous AIDS problem is daily presented to those who travel the region's trade routes.
South Africa is no exception. The pop postmodernism of Love Life may be less naïve than the campaign in Swaziland, but it is no less cryptic. Disinterest has become an almost unavoidable consequence of viewing the wild surfeit of well intentioned, but ultimately meaningless social advertising that pops up along the subcontinent's transportation routes. Cynicism also tends to creep in when these communiqués mediate our perceptions not of a calamitous problem, but a tight brotherhood of focus groups and commercial interests.
How does one effectively communicate the fact that AIDS is the number one killer overall in Africa - without reducing all the clever wordplay to a meaningless scribble? How, simply stated, does one communicate the perils of Southern Africa's AIDS crisis? This is a question without an easy answer. A humble piece of graffiti painted onto a wall beneath a grubby Cape Town underpass offers one compelling suggestion. Written in red paint and featuring a bright yellow backdrop, the graffiti message simply states: "I'm sick of Mbeki saying HIV doesn't cause AIDS". The message is signed "Benjamin".
What has always astounded me about this piece of urban scribble is its frankness. Not only does it confront contemporary polemic headlong, it does so in a way that challenges complacency. AIDS is a political issue, one this nation's government has opted to confront by embarking upon a perilous intellectual journey charting the origins or existence of AIDS. In the interim people die, people like Benjamin. That someone's conscience was ruffled by Benjamin's little message is still evidenced by the concealing daub of black paint that evidently tried to protect the target of this pavement missive. The word "Mbeki" is deleted.
My own appreciation of this graffiti has always hinged upon its candour; its directness made personal by someone having affixed his signature - Benjamin. Who is Benjamin, I often found myself asking. 'From the Inside' answers this simple question. A project that traces its lineage back to July 2000, 'From the Inside' offers a visual document of how artist Sue Williamson responded to an invitation to make work relevant to issues then being discussed at the 13th International AIDS Conference in Durban.
The initial result was a series of site-specific messages dealing with South Africa's AIDS crisis. Each of the graffitied messages in the series condenses into epigrammatic form the personal core of a belief or insight of an individual diagnosed HIV-positive. Although less engaging than viewing the actual graffiti in situ, the gallery presentation does add to the experience by allowing one a view of the actual subjects of Williamson's interviews.
Presented as a series of double images, 'From the Inside' consists of a black and white subject portrait accompanied by a colour landscape photograph of the subject's message inscribed in a public place. In Benjamin's case, viewers are shown a portrait of a man lying in bed. Benjamin is skeletal, presumably dying from AIDS. In the adjacent landscape study, the world speeds by in dazzling colour, the foreground action blurred by a passing motorcar. Benjamin's message however remains critically in focus: "I'm sick of Mbeki saying HIV doesn't cause AIDS".
Although initiated in Cape Town, the 'From the Inside' project features many subjects interviewed and photographed in Johannesburg. Some of these works have already been exhibited, at last year's Joubert Park Project. The overall quality of the work is consistently strong, and it would be unfair to single out any particular work as exceptional. Nevertheless my own subjective preference was for the works entitled Nelson Masombuka, Johannes Bukhali, Kevin Lowe, Patricia and John Masuku.
Johannes Bukhali is a young black man proudly presenting himself with his parents. The portrait offers a quiet image of a complete family grouping. This detail is important, and affirmative in tone. The Bukhali family has triumphed over lovelessness and family dissolution, twin disasters wrought by migrant labour and AIDS. The landscape photograph that accompanies the Bukhali family portrait features an anonymous street wall littered with a noisy mess of words. "We", "fuck", "California Lovers"; these inscriptions jump out from beneath Johannes' own message: "HIV/AIDS is no longer ONLY for people who are infected, it's everyone task to help!" It is a poignant portrait of a marketplace selling sex and restraint in equal measures.
Perhaps one of the most touching subject portraits is that of Patricia. Adjacent to her landscape photograph appears a black and white portrait of a double storey house. This is the only piece in the series that does not feature the dignified image of the author of the graffiti. This prompts many questions. Why has this woman withheld her image, opted instead to have herself portrayed as a house, one that could be a business premises, a medical company at that? In a country where women, particularly black women, labour under stubborn and multi-layered silences brought about by AIDS, this piece resonates with strength and meaning.
An intriguing aspect of 'From the Inside', the gallery show, is the way in which it presents the uneasy relationship between the intimate and the everyday, the dynamic it establishes between personal space and public space. The black and white subject portraits portray the HIV-positive participants as self-possessed and relaxed. Benjamin's is the only exception. In contrast with this, the places where their messages are articulated, or placed into public view, appear functional and impersonal. To borrow from the loud neon sign that glows in the twilight of Judy's landscape portrait, it is the Adult World.
Williamson's gallery presentation would seem to suggest that despite her subjects being reconciled with their personal fates, these individuals still engage a world that excludes and isolates. This is apparent in the mood of the places where she located her subject's messages. All of the landscape photographs depict deterritorialised non-spaces; a dusty corner adjacent to a butchery, an obscured view of downtown Johannesburg, worlds intersected by the linear geometry of security fences, concrete retainer walls, roads and walkways. These are not pretty portraits of our public bounty, and as such serve as strong visual metaphors for estrangement.
One criticism of 'From the Inside' is the show's inordinate focus on the urban experience. We are however told that 'From the Inside' is a document of an evolving process. It will be interesting to see how Williamson develops this project, particularly to reflect the rural narrative, without diluting the tone already established in the series thus far.
This criticism aside, the prime achievement of Williamson's in situ project - as distinct from the gallery document - is its decision to locate itself in a public space. While this is by no means a particularly radical or new approach to art, it is an important one given the subject matter. The wall-painted graffiti celebrates a form of political dissent reminiscent of times when dissident views were expressed in freestyle script on public walls. Given the silences which currently conspire to shroud this country's AIDS crisis, both the public context of this art and its vocalising gesture become important.
Since the demise of apartheid, South African art has willingly plunged itself into the sometimes confusing miasma of contemporary artistic expression. Across the board there has been a wholesale liberation of form, and artists have shown a marked keenness to appropriate, mimic or reinterpret all the modes of expression currently available out there. Nothing wrong, I say. But somewhere along the short path between 1990 and now, a curious amnesia has crept in. That arch-industrialist Henry Ford best summarises it in his famous declaration: "History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history we made today."
While firmly rooted in the present, Williamson's AIDS project suggests a surprising continuity with history, or more pointedly with that mode of expression uniquely grounded in South African experience - protest art. That many have willingly consigned this approach or genre to the recently deceased annals of South African art history is a shame. As Benjamin's message in Cape Town attests, protest art still has a vital part to play in our evolving democracy. The rude little daub of black paint covering Mbeki's name only serves to amplify this fact.