Sue Williamson

Annie Silinga

1983

On display at Tate Modern

Artist
Sue Williamson born 1941
Medium
Photo-etching and screenprint on papers on paper
Dimensions
Support: 1000 x 700 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with funds provided by Simon and Catriona Mordant, and the Basil and Raghida Al-Rahim Art Fund, courtesy of Goodman Gallery, 2014
Reference
P81079

Summary

This print is from A Few South Africans 1983–5 (Tate P81075P81088), a set of fourteen photo-etchings made while Sue Williamson was studying for her Advanced Diploma in Printmaking at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, Cape Town. Williamson was intimately engaged in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and dedicated this work to raising the visibility of women and disenfranchised groups crusading for a more just society. She began work on the series, which presents portraits of named and unnamed women from South African society, in 1982. Having moved to South Africa from England with her family as a child in 1948, Williamson’s prints mark a turning point in her activism for their connection to the wider international struggles in recognising the civic contributions of unsung yet heroic women.

A Few South Africans combines a painstaking series of techniques on paper, demonstrating the artist’s technical mastery in printmaking. Each central image was photo-etched with additional elements rendered in hard-ground etching, aquatint or hand-drawing. A decorative coloured border surrounds each portrait. This framing device pays homage to a common domestic practice in the townships of South Africa whereby coloured paper and printed ephemera are repurposed to confer status upon photographic mementos. Each image, demarcated by superimposing a colour screenprinted frame around it, contains details that refer to the sitter’s biography. The images are accompanied by detailed descriptions of the political and social acts that earned each woman a place in the portfolio. The artist either photographed each of the subjects herself or sourced their images from library archives, often from banned books.

Williamson eschewed printmaking convention and conceived the series as an ongoing project, so as not to place a limit on the number of women she might eventually choose to commemorate. Nine works were completed in sequence in 1983: Elizabeth Paul, Maggie Magaba, Winnie Mandela, Lilian Ngoyi, Annie Silinga, Nokukanye Lutuli, Helen Joseph, Albertina Sisulu and The Accused (also called Treason Trial), which documents an event rather than one person. This first group was produced in an edition of twenty, with half issued as a set of nine and half made available individually.

Having been invited to display the series at Gallery International in Cape Town as a solo exhibition in 1984, Williamson subsequently created a further five prints: Case No. 6831/21, Amina Cachalia, Caroline Motsoaledi, Virginia Mngoma and Charlotte Maxeke, this time in an edition of thirty-five. These five images were added to the ten complete sets of the portfolio created the year before. Tate’s copy is number five out of the set of ten.

Case No. 6831/32 is also known by the alternate title Case No. Anonymous, in reference to the unnamed women living at the margins of society in South Africa’s shanty towns, whose unsung contribution to the struggle against apartheid Williamson wanted to honour. She has explained:

The women honoured were generally those who played a recognised role in the struggle against apartheid. Case No. 6831/21, however, paid tribute to the millions of anonymous wives of migrant workers not allowed by law to live in the urban areas with their working husbands. The woman in this portrait, who I met in the Crossroads squatter camp near Cape Town in 1983, had defied the law to try to live with her husband. I have referred to her as Case No 6831/21, as this was her status in the eyes of the state; she had appeared in [Langa judicial] court on charges of being illegally in the area on several occasions.
(Sue Williamson, artist’s statement, http://www.legacy-project.org/index.php?page=art_detail&artID=463, accessed 30 March 2014.)

In the continued spirit of political engagement, the editioned prints were subsequently reissued as postcards by the artist to further circulate portraits of the noteworthy yet little-known women. Williamson wrote, ‘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.’ (Quoted in Kim Gurney, ‘Sue Williamson’, ArtThrob, no.75, November 2003, http://www.artthrob.co.za/03nov/artbio.html, accessed 10 March 2014.)

Further reading
Sue Williamson, Resistance Art in South Africa, Cape Town 1989, pp.74–7.
Sue Williamson and Ashraf Jamal, Art in South Africa: the Future Present, Cape Town 1996.
Gill Saunders and Zoe Whitley, In Black and White: Prints from Africa and the Diaspora, London 2013, pp.115–7.

Zoe Whitley
March 2014

Display caption

Williamson was closely involved in the struggle against apartheid. This series of prints celebrates the often unsung role played by women in the campaign, with accompanying texts by the artist. Each print combines a number of painstaking techniques on paper, bringing together elements that relate to the sitter’s biography. The decorative borders pay homage to domestic practice in the townships, where important photographs are displayed with coloured papers and printed ephemera. The images were later distributed as postcards.

Gallery label, November 2015