What do you do when a world-famous artist who’s had exhibitions in New York, London, all the greats, who’s had a fellowship from the Rockefeller and won all kinds of accolades an art philistine like me has never heard of, takes time out from her day off to open up her painfully cool gallery in Cape Town just for you?
What about when it becomes obvious she may have been expecting some sort of camera crew, at least a bit of art knowledge from the interviewer (me) and some well known publication demanding my copy?
And then how about you’ve turned up in black jeans and a hoody you’ve just purchased as you can’t stand the unexpected cold a minute longer?
Super. Major. Awkward. Or ‘smawks’ as my work colleagues like to say.
Feign sickness? Seek an escape route? Fake a sudden death? Or just come clean about the misunderstanding? Which option would you go for?
I was under the impression I was going to meet one of Cape Town’s most prolific visual artists Sue Williamson in a group. I thought I’d take a look around her work at The Goodman Gallery and maybe do a q and a with everyone else afterwards. Never for one minute did I think this award winning artist would be opening her gallery for little old me, and only me.
Back to Sue, let me give you some background. Taken from her artthrob.co.za website:
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.
So there I was, in the New York style loft apartment in the trendy Shoreditch-like artist area of Cape Town, having found out approximately one minute beforehand that I was to interview Sue about her work.
Sue arrived, wearing a grey cardigan, muted tones, a scarf and looking every inch an artist against the red brick of the gallery entrance. Now I’d obviously never met this lady before, but the look of disappointment and possibly anger on her face cut me deep, and gave me an instant stutter as I tried to speak.
My awesome guide Sonia filled in for me as we made small talk about the location and how awesome the gallery was. We were waiting for her assistant to come and open up as he’d also taken time out on his day off. God those 10 minutes, more like 10 hours, were painful. I was running through ways to escape (should I just come clean?) while frantically trying to bring up my Google research from the last night into my brain.
Me: “I read you were born in Lichfield? I’m originally from a few miles from there, in Barton-under-Needwood”.
Sue: “Oh I haven’t been back since I was five or so.”
And that was the end of that one, the one nugget we had in common. Queue more awkward, stilted conversation. Where was this friggin assistant?
Sue: “So, what’s on at the Tate right now?”
Me: “Ooo, errm, errrmmmm, not sure actually”.
Another black mark against my credibility. This time done with a thick black marker and a look of disgust.
Finally, her assistant arrived. They’d done the whole air kissing thing and we were in.
Obviously still a little annoyed, Sue talked me through the portraits on the walls. All incredible women who’d suffered greatly during apartheid, some had been locked up while others supported loved ones who were suffering the same. All had experienced an incredible amount of sadness in their lives.
She’d photographed them at the worst of it from 1983-1987 and showcased the work under the name A Few South Africans – the women involved became icons of that era throughout the country. This new exhibition All Our Mothers was her going back to the women around 30 years later, and this time interviewing their granddaughters too, to see how they were both affected by their history now and the differences between the generations today.
I was trying to concentrate on what she was saying. The important words that were coming out of her mouth and I knew I’d have to grill her on later.
My racing mind: “What am I going to do? I don’t know anything about art? And not enough about apartheid? I’ll play ill. No, must stay. You can do it. Listen. Get involved.”
The simple white gallery space had the old photos framed on the walls. In the centre of the room were two white benches in front of five hanging screens. The first of the multi-screen video installation displayed images from the grandma’s album, the second one along had a still video of the grandma taken more recently and the third was a still video of the daughter. The final screens were one a piece of the grandma and granddaughter talking to each other.
We stood and watched as they played. I was grateful for a chance to not have to speak and collect my thoughts. I could think of some questions.
It wasn’t until about the third story of the five that I began to relax. When I could really experience the interviews we were there for for what they were. They didn’t just speak for the women involved, and it wasn’t that they were talking about such horrific things, but they were a beautiful representation of loving grandmother and granddaughter relationships everywhere. When one of the young women found out her nan was imprisoned twice she got emotional – I started to think about my nan and grandma and what they went through in their lifespan and it made me really sad. It’s too late for me to know more about them now, but they must’ve had some incredible experiences and seen a lot of changes in their 80+ years. It was so amazing that Sue gave these relationships the chance to understand each other more. To actually sit them down and have them talk about their lives, and find out things they didn’t even know after 20 or so years of them being related.
The stories were addictive. I had to watch them all and I didn’t want them to end. I loved seeing such brazen studies of the relationships between women. The first pair argued over the young woman’s blonde hair in one sentence and then the devastating effects of apartheid in the next. This was their life. They were all so much more informed than any of my friends – but South Africa is probably one of the most politically aware countries in the world and the interviewees were so affected they wouldn’t have been able to avoid it.
The films were beautifully produced – so simple and clean but effective, like the gallery. All that mattered in the white space was these strong, empowered and beautiful women on screen.
I know the exact moment Sue, Sonia and I started to relax. We were an hour in from first meeting and on video three. We sat down on the benches and as we did I literally felt the atmosphere lighten. I think independently but collectively we all decided we might as well all give into the situation.
There’d been a misunderstanding on everyone’s parts, but in the end we all took it well. Once the films had finished we went and had a chat that ended up being over 30 minutes. Sue was lovely and interesting and with her work has seen a lot through the eyes of her subjects and her travels.
“The idea of setting up a dialogue between a grandmother and her granddaughter really appealed to me.” – Sue Williamson
Unfortunately the exhibition finished at the Goodman Gallery 5 days later, but you can find more information on Sue Williamson here. She’s also exhibiting at the Frieze Art Fair in London in October (I’d heard of that one, even been there, thankfully).
Massive props to Sonia from Andulela Tours who ferried me about. Her art knowledge, which was infinitely better than mine, got us through some awkward times and would have had to go for the faking my own death option if she hadn’t have been there.