Sue Williamson occupies an influential and highly respected position in the South African art world, not only for her formidable artistic talent but also for her long history as a writer and cultural worker.
The main thread connecting her art is an ability to bring the marginalized into the mainstream consciousness of society, to make visible the unseen and thereby record for posterity that which might otherwise be overlooked. Her sharp artistic eye picks out what jaded familiarity obscures for others. In this incisive way, Williamson sheaves away layers of illusion to re-present reality in a fresh light.
In the 1980s, Williamson was well known for her series of portraits of women involved in the country's political struggle. A Few South Africans went some way towards filling the representational void of people and events during apartheid. And in many ways, her recent video work focusing on South African immigrants is a return to this concern.
Williamson also contributes to South African society through her literary talents. She is the published author of two respected books - Art in South Africa: the Future Present and Resistance Art in South Africa - and an art critic and founder of Art Throb. Her first career as a journalist and subsequent move into copy writing for the advertising industry provided good grounding.
She says: "You become aware of the audience to whom you speak. In that sense, you think backwards: what you have to say, whom you say it to, and how it will reach the audience. Having to consider your work through the eyes of somebody who knows nothing about you as an artist and what you are doing is a useful exercise."
Founder member of arts organization Public Eye, Williamson is also a cultural organizer who contributes to many collective or group art projects. Of these various hats, she says: "I am an artist first. I am interested in the way art can change and influence things and that process is helped by writing about it. Those different roles all feed back into each other."
Williamson has managed to avoid the rut of being caught in an apartheid-era aesthetic, a malaise some other South African artists have suffered. It is perhaps her relentless embrace of the new that drives this progress. She says: "I am never particularly interested in doing what I did the last time. I take one thing and work it out a number of ways." This fact is reflected in the variety of media Williamson embraces, from print to mixed media, video and site-specific installations.
"Williamson's best work is very much engage without devolving to the level of straight-forward reporting or critique."
Nicholas Dawes, Art South Africa, Vol 1 Issue 2, p.14
"In [her mature work] we see an artist who is acutely socially aware and fearless in addressing issues others may prefer to steer clear of � This has never precluded her from making works of intense beauty � but she has never shied away from presenting her subjects as they are."
Andrew Lamprecht, Art South Africa, Vol 1 Issue 4, p.70
"What is most extraordinary about Williamson is that she forged her vision and subsequent political experiences into an artistic statement that has had a significant impact upon black and white South Africans and now within the international community � Williamson is a risk-taker not only aesthetically but also in her outspoken personal commitment to justice."
Betty LaDuke, Africa through the Eyes of Women Artists, Africa World Press, 1991
"It is this intersection of a conceptually informed critical intelligence and a sense of obligation to the demand of an atrocious history - a demand which cannot be answered in any critical register - that seems to characterize Williamson's most important work of the last ten years."
Nicholas Dawes, Sue Williamson: Selected Work, Double Storey: Cape Town, 2003
"My work is about people, rather than about myself. It's about stories of people in the community. At the same time, I feel allowed to use these stories to make my work so I like to put something back in again ... I try to make things that are popular and will be understood by most people who look at it. I don't just want to talk to other artists, many of whom make work for their peers.
"I like to make work people feel ready to get engaged with, so they don't just walk past. Lots of images are quite familiar images so I re-present them so viewers are seeing something quite familiar to them in a new or different context. In many ways, I am acting as an archivist. I am presenting material in a serious way. I also often start something and want to see how it develops."
On the role of an artist: "One can't really prescribe it. As an extreme example, someone who does tiny pencil drawings that are only discovered after their death to be brilliant: was their work not of any value? Not everybody has to work with the idea of making some kind of social point. Artists take different points of view and it is often this element in a work that has the power to surprise and bring some new insight." (09.10.03)
On contemporary South African art: "Very few younger artists want to take on social issues. Their work is more about a personal identity crisis and these are the popular themes." (19.10.03)
On exhibiting abroad: "Sometimes you wonder how it's being regarded. Some reviews do make you shake your head. Often my work is looked at as a documentary thing of apartheid. Although my work has a documentary side, it's not just about that." (19.10.03)
Williamson is working on a commission for South Africa House in London. She has been asked to make an intervention upon two paintings currently hanging in the UK embassy using glass panels placed in front of the original artworks in order to change their meaning. Her two paintings depict Cape Colony governor Simon van der Stel and his son, Willem Adriaan. Williamson wants to re-present history with reference to slavery, drawing upon her fascination with language by intervening with historical text. Fellow South African artists Berni Searle and Sam Nhlengethwa are working on paintings that hang alongside.
Williamson held a solo retrospective at the Centre d'Art Contemporain in Brussels between April and June 2003. The show included four Truth Commission works (including an installation of Can't Forget, Can't Remember), From the Inside (2000), For Thirty Years Next to His Heart (1990), Project for Atlantica (1998), Pages from a Government Tourist Brochure (1992), Colouring In (1992), Messages from the Moat (1997), Out of the Ashes (1994), The Last Supper (1981) and Revisited (1993).
Williamson's latest video work about South Africa immigrants recently won a Brett Kebble Merit Award.
In 2000, Williamson began work on a collaborative project about people living with HIV/ AIDS called From the Inside. The photographic portraits were strategically painted in public places around Cape Town and Johannesburg alongside text drawn from interviews regarding the most important thing each person felt they had drawn from the experience. A photograph of this wall, paired with a photograph of the person, became part of the formal series.
Williamson made a dozen artworks concerning the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a series of public hearings set up to hear testimony from victims and amnesty applications from perpetrators concerning human rights violations committed during apartheid. Williamson found the TRC compelling raw material: "To think we would finally hear the truth, which was beyond what could have been imagined, beyond the veil of secrecy and absolute blatant lies. I knew I would do something with it. I cut out newspaper articles and kept files and finally had the idea to do something case by case."
Williamson will create Welcome to the Jet Hotel - a video about being stuck in a hotel in the Cameroon because the country's president had chartered their plane out to New York. Video is a medium she has recently embraced and one in which she would like to do more work.
1977-8 Completed a two year Fine Art Diploma, Rorkes Drift Art Centre
SELECTED SOLO EXHIBITIONS
The Last Supper , Gowlett Gallery, Cape Town, 1981
A Few South Africans, Gallery International, Cape Town, 1984
--Market Gallery Johannesburg, 1985
--Museum of Art, Univ. of Oregon, US, 1985
--On the Wall Gallery, Medford, Oregon, 1985
Tributaries, Africana Museum, Johannesburg & Germany, 1985
87 Artists Against Apartheid, Market Gallery, Johannesburg, 1988
Recent Work, Association for Visual Arts, Cape Town, 1990
The Last Supper Revisited, Irma Stern Museum, Cape Town, 1993
For Thirty Years Next to His Heart, North Dakota Museum of Art, Grand Forks, 1993
Recent Work, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, 1994
--Oliewenhuis Art Museum, Bloemfontein
Truth Games, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, 1998
--Joao Ferreira Gallery, Cape Town, 1998
--Dakawa Art Centre, Grahamstown, 1999
The Last Supper Revisited, Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C., 2002
From the Inside, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, 2002
--Joao Ferreira Gallery, Cape Town, 2002
Selected Work, Centre d'Art Contemporain, Brussels, 2003
SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS
Commitment to Vision, Museum of Art, Univ. of Oregon, 1986
Bild/konst I sodra Afrika, Kultuhuset, Stockholm, 1988
Mailart from South Africa: A View from the Inside, Soho 20 Gallery, New York, 1990
Art and the Media, Gertrude Posel Gallery, Johannesburg, 1991
Pictures as History, Grahamstown & Jhb., 1991
Vita Awards Exhibition, Johannesburg Art Gallery, 1991
4th Bienal de la Habana, National Museum, Havana, Cuba, 1991
9th Biennale of Sydney, Gallery of New South Wales, 1992
African in America, Bayona and Santiago, Spain, 1992
The Art of Protest, Benton Gallery, Southampton, NY, 1993
55th Venice Biennale, Fondazione Levi, Venice, 1993
Out of the Ashes, 5th Bienale de la Habana, Fortaleza de la Cabana, Cuba, 1994
Art Home Art, Grahamstown Station, Standard Bank National Arts Festival, 1994
Un art contemporain d'Afrique du Sud, AFAA, Paris, 1994
Trackings, Art First, London, 1994
Steirischer Herbst Festival of Contemporary Art, Kunstlerhaus, Graz, Austria, 1994
Ku(n)stlijn, CAL Foundation, Hoorn, Holland, 1994
Vita Art Now Award Exhibition, Johannesburg Art Gallery, 1995
Objects of Defiance Spaces of Contemplation, Ist Johannesburg Biennale, MuseumAfrica, Johannesburg, 1995
Weltanschauung project, Goethe Institute, Turin, 1995
Panoramas of Passage: Changing Landscapes of South 'Africa, Meridian International Center, Washington, US tour & Gertrude Posel Gallery, Johannesburg, 1995-8
Colours, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 1996
Insight: Four Artists from South Africa, Wright Gallery, New York, 1996
Simunye, Adelson Gallery, New York, 1996
Alternating Currents, 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, Electric Workshop, Johannesburg, 1997
District Six Outdoor Sculpture Project, Cape Town, 1997
Thirty Minutes, Robben Island Visitors' Block, Cape Town, 1997
Fotofest, 7th International Festival of Photography, Vine Street Studios, Houston, 1998
Drommer och Mollnar, Kulturhuset, Museum of Fine Art, Stockholm, 1998-9
Artery, Goodman Gallery artists at Jaoa Ferreira Gallery, Cape Town, 1999
Fast Forward.ZA, Van Reekum Museum, Apeldoorn, 1999
Liberated Voices: Contemporary Art from South Africa, Museum for African Art, New York, Texas, California & Arizona, 1999-02
Videobrasil Electronic Art International Festival, Sao Paulo, 2000
Foto Biennale Rotterdam, Las Palmas Building at Rhine Harbour, 2000
Johannesburg, Johannesburg, Openspace, Milan, 2000
The New Republics, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 2000
Secure the Future, Exhibition Centre, Durban & Harvard, Boston, 2000
Messages from the Moat, Old Archive Building, The Hague, 2000
World Wide Video Festival, Baby Lounge, Amsterdam, 2000
Joubert Park Project, Johannesburg Art Gallery, 2001
The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1954-1994, unich, Berlin, Chicago, New York, 2001-2
IV Rencontres de la Photographie Africaine, Bamako, 2001-2
PhotoEspana 2001, Dis/locations, Bilbao and O'Porto, 2001-3
Head North: Work from the Permanent Collection of the SANG, Sweden & Scandinavian tour, 2002
International Media Art Festival, Palazzo Postale, Mexico City, 2002
Recontres Video Arts Plastiques, Centre d'Art Contemporain de Basse-Normandie, Normandy, 2002
History/Now, Liljevachs Konsthall, Stockholm, 2002
Africa Apart, New Society for the Visual Arts, Berlin, 2002
Co-existence, Rose Museum, Brandeis University, Boston, 2003
Transferts, Palais de Beaux Arts, Brussels, 2003
In South Africa: South African National Gallery, Cape Town; Johannesburg Art Gallery; Durban Art Gallery; Pretoria Art Museum; Tatham Gallery, Pietermaritzburg; MuseumAfrica, Johannesburg; Gauteng Legislature, Johannesburg; Constitutional Court of South Africa, Johannesburg; Sandton Museum, Gauteng; Brenthurst Library, Johannesburg; The University of Cape Town; The University of the Western Cape; The University of Stellenbosch; The University of the Witwatersrand; Natal Technikon, Durban; Cape Provincial Library; SA Breweries, Cape Town; BHP Billiton, Johannesburg; MTN Art Institute, Johannesburg
Abroad: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C.; Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama; North Dakota Museum of Art, Grand Forks; Wellesley College, Massachusetts; Wifredo Lam Centre, Havana; CAL Foundation, Hoorn, Holland
Dictionary of South African Sculptors and Painters, Grania Ogilvy, Everard Read, 1989
Africa through the Eyes of Women Artists, Betty La Duke, Africa World Press, 1991
Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century, World of Art Series, Richard J Powell, Thames & Hudson, 1997
Printmaking in a transforming South Africa, Philippa Hobbs & Elizabeth Rankin, David Philip Publishers, Cape Town, 1997
Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to Marketplace, Olu Oguibe & Okwui Enwezor, MIT Press, 1999
Contemporary African Art, Sidney Littlefield, Thames & Hudson, 1999
Anthologie de l'Art Africain du Xxe Siecle, N'Gone Fall & Jean Pivin, Revue Noir, 2001