History without the textbooks

Although the name Elizabeth Paul is probably unfamiliar to most of us, she is regarded as something of a saint in Crossroads and other black townships, where faded photographs of her hang in many homes.

On May 14 every year, busloads of her followers from all over the country make the pilgrimage to Tsolo in the Transkei, where a special festival is held to commemorate her extraordinary healing powers. Even today — several years after her death — many women still pray to her to make them fertile.

Elizabeth Paul is one of 14 courageous South Africans celebrated by Cape Town artist Sue Williamson in a remarkable portfolio of large, icon-like portraits in silkscreen and etching entitled “A Few South Africans” — currently at the Market Gallery (full review appeared in last week’s Weekly Mail).

The people portrayed are not those that white South African children learn about as heroes at school, yet their contribution to this country has been immense, says the artist. “Although most of the subjects are women,” she adds, “it is not that I am being sexist. I just think that women have even more of a struggle than men. I found all these women absolutely heroic — the lives they have led, what they have had to contend with.”

Others in the series include Winnie Mandela, banned wife of Nelson Mandela; Helen Joseph, the first South African to be put under house arrest (she is depicted sitting in the room where she spent so much time); Lilian Ngoyi, former president of the Federation of South African Women and Nokukanya Luthuli, wife of the late chief Albert Luthuli, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

“She was very much a community person says Williamson. “Finding that there was no postal service to all the little villages near her home, she became a postal volunteer; and for years she used to walk for miles, personally delivering the mail.” Among the lesser known figures are Caroline Motsoaledi, whose husband — a Rivonia trialist — was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island.

“Having had to bring up a family of seven on her own, she is symbolic of many other women in similar circumstances.” There is also Charlotte Maxeke, born in 1874, who was “one of the first black women in South Africa to become involved in civil rights and to espouse black consciousness. She was also particularly concerned with the breakdown of African family life with the growth of the townships and urban areas.”

The series — an ongoing one that has taken over three years so far — has grown more or less spontaneously, as much has depended on available material. Williamson often had great difficulty obtaining good photographs or finding information about her subjects as “some of them were banned or under house arrest, and books with details about them were not freely available in this country”.

Some of the photographs she took herself, others were obtained from people’s collections of snapshots or off their walls. Stylistically, the works derive from two sources, she explains. “The Renaissane portrait, with its glimpses of landscape on either side of the central figure; and pictures saw in the homes of people in Crossroads Langa.

“These were family photographs in home-made frames, with bright borders of giftwrap edged in strips of coloured paper cut with zig-zag scissors.” The artist has attempted to capture the feeling of these frames in her own intricately patterned silkscreen borders that surround portraits.

Reference to incidents in each person’s life also appear in these borders — such as the plane that took her husband to Oslo in the portrait of Mrs Luthuli. A rewarding aspect for the artist has been the enthusiastic feedback from many of her subjects, as well as from local communities.

After the death of Annie Silinga (one of her subjects) — a patron of the UDF and persistent fighter against the pass system — Williamson was asked to make T-Shirts with Silinga’s image to be worn by mourners at the funeral.

“A few South Africans” is a celebratory work of art. It is also a political work of great strength, informed by deep humanity. Small wonder then that many people stop and cry before these remarkable portraits.

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