/ 31 May 2013

Sue Williamson celebrates an enduring female legacy

Struggle stalwart and born-free: Amina Cachalia outside the front door of her home in Fordsburg and her  granddaughter
Struggle stalwart and born-free: Amina Cachalia outside the front door of her home in Fordsburg and her granddaughter

Alongside Sue Williamson’s black-and-white photograph of a young, sari-clad Amina Cachalia, outside her one-time home in Fordsburg, hangs a portrait of her granddaughter, Luiza, outside the same house, wearing the same contemplative look on her face.

Between these two images featured in the artist’s latest exhibition, All Our Mothers, lies a gap of almost 30 years.  This is the “generational gap,” between struggle stalwart and born-free, Williamson says she wanted her audience to see.

“I was very interested in the generation of today — the young people who didn’t grow up in that history — and what life is like for them now. I was also fascinated by the idea of creating dialogue and building a conversation between grandmothers and granddaughters,” Williamson said on a Saturday morning at the Goodman Gallery, where she had conducted an exhibition walkabout.

Williamson’s exhibition features over 20 portraits of gracefully shot women almost 30 years apart — mainly during and after the struggle’s heyday, from young activists Cheryl Carolus and Mamphela Ramphele standing attentively at the height of apartheid to a seated, older Brigalia Bam, founding member of the Women’s Development Foundation, as well as grey-haired struggle veteran Vesta Smith in 2012.

Accompanying the portraits is a multiscreen video installation titled There Is Something I Must Tell You, in which Williamson juxtaposes an elderly struggle activist with her born-free relative. The six conversations in the installation feature the likes of Caroline Motsoaledi and her granddaughter Busisiwe — who was able to afford designer labels such as Dolce & Gabbana and remembers making fun of a classmate for wearing a pair of Adidas sneakers with six stripes instead of three. This is a far cry from the type of conversation Motsoaledi, widow of Rivonia trialist Elias Motsoaledi and mother of seven, would have held when she was detained by the security police for 156 days in the 1960s.

“The video installation reflects the conversations of the mothers and the young women, and the different lives they lead,” says Williamson, a veteran artist who studied at the Rorke’s Drift Art and Craft Centre, the Art Students’ League in New York, and who was awarded a diploma in fine art from the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art in 1983. Williamson is also the author of Art in South Africa: the Future Present, Resistance Art in South Africa and the founder of visual arts publication Art Throb.

And like her gloomy images of a family in their last days in District Six, shot in the early 1980s before they were forcibly moved by the apartheid regime (from the series Last Supper at Manley Villa), and the telling of the stories of immigrants in search of a better life, ironically in a xenophobic and unwelcoming South Africa in her 2003 series Better Lives, the stories of the born-free women in All Our Mothers are not only about hardship and hostility.

Mind the gap
The young women, whom the artist describes as “intelligent and well spoken”, acknowledge their elders’ role in the struggle and some are open enough to admit how distant apartheid is for them. Their confessions to Williamson show just how wide the generation gap is.

“For us, it’s about getting richer,” says Vesta Smith’s great-granddaughter, Tammy, who also describes how she harmlessly uses the words “darkie” and “bushie” with her friends.

“I still want to talk about my blonde hair. Grandmother didn’t like my hair blonde,” says Luiza to the camera, to which Cachalia retorts: “I don’t have a problem with blondes; I just didn’t like her being blonde.”

It’s been almost three decades since Williamson snapped the likes of Helen Joseph, who spearheaded the women’s anti-pass protest to the Union Buildings in Pretoria in 1956, and 101-year-old Rebecca Kotane — wife of the late struggle veteran Moses Kotane. About her latest work, Williamson says: “I wanted to record what people were saying in post-apartheid South Africa.”

All Our Mothers was conceived after Amina Cachalia called Williamson in 2011 while the latter was a Rockefeller Foundation Creative Arts Fellow in Italy to ask her to contribute to her recently released autobiography, When Hope and History Rhyme.

At that very moment the artist was thinking she would like to interview and photograph Cachalia again, and to reconsider the important contribution of her generation almost 20 years into the new democracy.

Williamson, who was born in England, also tells me how Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, after seeing her work exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2011, encouraged her to embark on the project. He referred to the subjects in her show as the “mothers of our country”. This inspired the exhibition title, All Our Mothers.

Posthumously dedicated to Cachalia, who died in January, aged 82, All Our Mothers also features prints from Williamson’s renowned body of etchings and collages titled A Few South Africans.

This body of work turned into a commercial success for the artist in the 1980s after her prints — which featured struggle heroes such as Charlotte Maxeke and iconic ANC veteran Winnie Madikizela-Mandela — were reproduced as postcards.

Instead of the prints from A Few South Africans being used as a way to fill the gallery’s space, the images are in fact an extension of the 72-year-old artist’s All Our Mothers. Williamson’s latest exhibition reintroduces the profiles of some of the women featured in A Few South Africans. From the women’s anti-pass campaign activist Annie Silinga to Ramphele and defiance-campaign activist Cachalia, All Our Mothers continues and complements the body of work that catapulted Williamson to the forefront of South Africa’s then-growing art scene.

Most importantly, though, All Our Mothers recalls the legacy of the women who helped to usher in the country’s liberation.

Viewing the exhibition, I began to acknowledge this legacy, particularly as a black woman strolling through a gallery in Rosebank, an area that would have been restricted to a person of my colour 30 years ago.

During the walkabout given by Williamson I found myself next to the 90-year-old ANC stalwart Rica Hodgson. We listened carefully as Motsoaledi’s granddaughter spoke about how “deeply integrated” her group of born-free peers are, all thanks to the sacrifices her grandmother made.

All Our Mothers is showing at the Goodman Gallery, 163 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood, until June 15