Sue Williamson

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Aids, apartheid, history, memory
Visual Arts (graphic, installation art, photography)
Africa, Southern
South Africa
Cape Town
created on:
July 7, 2003
last changed on:
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Cape of Doubtful Hope

In her installations, photographs and graphic works, the South African Sue Williamson mainly reflects on the history and current problems of her country: "We’re in the process of coming to terms with the past. I think that, before we can move on, we have to reach a point where we can find our way to a solution and say: OK, we’ve confronted our past as intensively as possible." This artist’s work boldly demonstrates where she stands, and she is unsparing in her criticism of the country’s institutions.
In "Messages from the Moat," a work exhibited at the Johannesburg Biennial in 1997, Sue Williamson examines the older history of South Africa. Her subject is the exploitation of black slaves. The work was inspired by a visit to the museum in the Dutch town of Hoorn, a building very similar to the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. It became clear to her that the wealth reflected in the objects on display could only have been generated by the forced labour of South African slaves. In the castle in Cape Town, Sue Williamson found an archive containing the names and personal details of 150 slaves. For each of these slaves, she engraved the individual’s name, the date of sale and the name of the purchaser on a wine bottle. Into these bottles she placed cut up copies of Dutch paintings: "It’s like the revenge of the slaves - ´we’re going to cut up your paintings and send them back to you.´ " These bottles are part of an installation – hanging in the air in a net, as if someone had made a big catch. A strip of water below it recalls the moat around the castle.

"For thirty years, next to his heart" (1990), a work shown in the exhibition, "The Short Century," gives an impression of the harassment suffered by the non-white population during the apartheid years. Its centrepiece is a man’s "passbook," the identity document he carried with him for 30 years. In 49 single works, copies of each page of this document are presented separately in forty-nine handmade frames. Countless rubber-stampings, officials’ signatures and the traces of wear and tear: all these bear witness to the life of this man. The poetic irony of the title, "For thirty years next to his heart," gives a hint of the ambivalence the man may have felt about carrying this book.

A new, serial work by Sue Williamson bears the title "From the Inside." Its subject is the silence and shame surrounding the HIV virus and AIDS itself. "From the Inside" emerged in the context of the Aids Conference in Durban (2000), and it involved working directly with people infected by the HIV virus. In order to reach the broadest possible audience as directly as possible (including HIV positive people themselves), the work is displayed in a public place. The basis for each individual work is an interview conducted with an AIDS victim by Williamson herself. From each of these talks, she distils a central statement, which is then conveyed into the public space, together with the name of the person affected. Judy, for example, who is HIV positive, insists, "HIV/AIDS – you have to work on surviving; it won’t just happen." As subjective and highly personal accounts, each of these statements also receives a very different aesthetic presentation.

Sue Williamson is a central figure on the South African art scene, and not just as an artist, but as a writer about art. She is the author of seminal works on South African art ("Resistance Art in South Africa," 1989), co-author of the anthology “"Art in South Africa – the Future Present" (1996) and editor of the website Artthrob ( In this way, she combats the severe lack of information on art in South Africa – there is not a single art periodical in the entire country – and helps to create a meeting place and a "grapevine" for the country’s artists.

(Translation: English Express)
Author: Petra Stegmann


Sue Williamson was born in 1941 in Lichfield, England. In 1948, her family emigrated to South Africa. From 1963 until 1965, she studied at the Art Students´ League in New York. In1983, she received an Advanced Diploma from the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town.

In 1990, Sue Williamson received a grant from the Edita Morris Foundation for Peace and Culture, which enabled her to spend two months in Paris.

Sue Williamson wrote the book "Resistance Art in South Africa" (1989), and co-authored the volume "Art in South Africa – the Future Present" (1996) with Ashraf Jamal. Since 1997, she has been editor of ArtThrob, an online magazine for contemporary art from South Africa.

Her work can be found in many collections, including: the South African National Gallery; the Durban Art Gallery; the Oppenheimer Collection, the Brenthurst Library, Johannesburg; the Museum of Art, Pretoria; the Africana Museum, Johannesburg; the University of Cape Town; the University of Western Cape; Barclay’s Bank, New York; the Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama; and the North Dakota Museum of Art.

Sue Williamson lives and works in Cape Town.


Group Exhibitions (Choice)

Exhibition / Installation
2006 "The Great Wall 2006”, The Great Wall, Hamburg, Germany 2005 "Gleichzeitig in Afrika...“, Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Nuremberg, Germany "New Identities“, JAG Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa "Girls Night Out“, João Ferreira Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa "New Identities“, Pretoria Art Museum, Pretoria, South Africa "Cape Town Month of Photography“, The South African Centre for Photography, Cape Town, South Africa 2004 "Dak´Art 2004“, Biennial Dakar, Dakar, Senegal "New Identities Contemporary South African Art“, Museum Bochum, Bochum, Germany "10 Years 100 Artists“, Bell-Roberts Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa "Coup de Coeur II“, Crac Alsace - Centre rhénan d´art contemporain, Altkirch, France "Staged Realities“, Michael Stevenson, Cape Town, South Africa "Visions of Paradise“, João Ferreira Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa 2003 "Sexualität und Tod“, Rautenstrauch Joest Museum, Cologne, Germany "Transferts“, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Paris, France "Africa Appart“, NGBK Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst e.V., Berlin, Germany 2001 "The Short Century”, Museum Villa Stuck, Munich, Germany "The Short Century”, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany "Head North“, Bildmuseet, Umeå, Sweden "History Now“, Dunkers Kulturhus, Helsingborg, Sweden 2000 "Emotional Geographies: Reimaging the Past in Post-apartheid Narrative”, Foto Biennial, Rotterdam, Netherlands "Messages from the Moat”, Old Archive Building, The Hague, Netherlands 1999 "Truth Games”, Dakawa Art Centre, Grahamstown, South Africa "Dreams and Clouds”, Museum of Fine Art, Göteborg, Sweden "Liberated Voices: Contemporary Art from South Africa”, The Museum for African Art, New York, USA 1998 "Fotofest”, Houston, Texas, USA 1997 "Alternating Currents – Electric Workshop”, Johannesburg Biennale, Newtown, Johannesburg, South Africa 1996 "Colours: Contemporary Art from South Africa”, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany "Insight: Four Artists from South Africa”, Wright Gallery, New York, USA 1995 "Kunstlijn“, CAL Foundation, Hoorn, Netherlands "Objects of Defiance, Spaces of Contemplation”, Museum Africa, Johannesburg, South Africa 1994 "Out of the Ashes”, Fortaleza de la Cabana, 5th Bienal de la Habana, Havana, Cuba 1993 "The Last Supper Revisited“, Irma Stern Museum, Cape Town, South Africa "XLV Biennale die Venezia”, Biennale die Venezia, Venice, Italy 1992 "9th Biennial of Sydney”, Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia 1986 "Searching for Self Expression”, Lowenstein Library, Fordham University, New York, USA 1985 "Women Artists Collect“, Fresno Gallery 25, California, USA 1979 "South African Biennial“, SA National Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa

Solo Exhibitions (Choice)

Exhibition / Installation
2005 "Hotels an Better Lives”, João Ferreira Gallery, Cape Twon, South Africa "Hotels an Better Lives”, GoodmanGallery, Johannesburg, South Africa 2003 "Sue Williamson“, Centre d´Art Contemporain, Brussel, Belgium 2002 "The Last Supper Revisited”, National Museum for African Art, Washington, USA 2001 "Can´t Forget, Can´t Remember“, S.A. National Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa "Messages from the Moat”, Archive Building, Casuarie Str., The Hague, Netherlands 2000 "Truth Games”, Dakawa Art Centre, Grahamstown, South Africa 1998 "Truth Games“, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa "Truth Games”, Joao Ferreira Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa 1994 "Out of the Ashes”, The Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa "5th Biennial of Havana”, Biennal of Havana, Havana, Cuba 1993 UCT Irma Stern Museum, Cape Twon, South Africa 1985 On The Wall Gallery, Medford, Oregon, USA Market Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa 1984 Gallery International, Cape Town, South Africa 1981 Gowlett Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa


In 1995, Sue Williamson was awarded the Vita Now Art Prize.


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.

The Short Century

Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa

(18 May 01 - 29 July 01)


Contemporary Art from South Africa

(24 May 96 - 18 August 96)


Online Magazine Arttrhob