Sue Williamson: A Few South Africans (1984)
Made at a time when South Africa was still firmly in the grip of apartheid, A Few South Africans (1983-7) was a series which attempted to make visible the history of women, mostly unsung individuals, who had made an impact in some way on the struggle for freedom. The ‘few’ of the title are representative of the anonymous many who were part of the struggle. At the time, pictures of these women never appeared in the popular press, and little was known about them. In order to make their portraits the artist had to photograph them herself or source images in banned books which she unearthed in university libraries. Through her mode of presentation she gave each of these women the status of heroine. The backgrounds and framing devices reflected aspects of their personal histories. Williamson has explained that the framing devices she used here refer to the way in which people in the squatter towns and townships would use scraps of wallpaper, printed packaging and coloured gift wraps to elevate snapshots to the status of works of art. The central image of each is a photo-etching, sometimes with the additional of aquatint or hard-ground etching; the frames were screenprinted and collaged over the etched images. Motifs in the frames derive from African textiles such as kanga cloths, or personal artefacts. Referring to this series, Williamson has said “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.” The subjects of these prints have been documented by Williamson, with an account of each woman’s life and her political role detailed in a catalogue which accompanied the publication of the series.
An important part of the history of this series of 17 prints is that they were also reproduced as postcards, in order to make the images widely accessible to the general public. These postcards have been described as ‘one of the most important icons of the eighties’. This view is reflected in Williamson’s comment, “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.”