Featured in
Issue 237

The Memory Work of Sue Williamson and Lebohang Kganye

At the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, the two South African artists present multi-media works that memorialize anti-Apartheid resistance

BY Ian Bourland in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 27 APR 23

The Apartheid regime that governed South Africa for much of the 20th century operated through separateness: Black people were moved to the hinterlands, men taken from families, cosmopolitan neighbourhoods bulldozed, languages disrupted. Lebohang Kganye and Sue Williamson’s exhibition at the Barnes Foundation, steeped in such histories, sounds these dislocations and undertakes an act of restoration. This is fitting: for all of the press that the men of the anti-Apartheid struggle received, it was women who held communities together and, often, bravely resisted. Certainly, many South African artists used their practice as a form of protest. Williamson, for instance, made photo etching prints of women leaders and reproduced them as small postcards – part agit-prop, part icon – that circulated where traditional art could not (‘A Few South Africans’, 1982–87).

A portrait of an older woman sitting down, flowers behind and a window to the left
Sue Williamson, Caroline Motsoaledi, Soweto, 2012, archival inkjet print on paper, from the

series of thirty-two. Courtesy: © Sue Williamson and Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, Johannesburg, and London.

There are echoes of that project in Williamson’s ‘All Our Mothers’ series (1983–ongoing): dozens of calmly posed figures from many walks of life. Their visages anchor the first gallery and complement Kganye’s series of black and white, figurative wall-hangings rendered in fabric (‘Mosebetsi wa Dirithi’, 2022), which concisely introduces a practice of extrapolating from (or interpolating oneself into) everyday photography. Taken together, these projects assemble a sort of national family album, underscoring the exhibition’s motifs of memorial and translation.

Upon a cloth background, a black and white image of a woman with a handbag
Lebohang Kganye, Maria Magadeni Mkhalipi, 2022, TC twill, organza, calico, buckram, batting. Courtesy: © Lebohang Kganye

Personal recollection and its vagaries have long been at the heart of Williamson’s practice, which she has referred to as ‘memory work’ to me. The stakes of such labour is heightened in the South African context, wherein censorship, secrecy and distortions of the official record were long tactics of the state. Consequently, the celebrated Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) (1996–2000) provided a non-retributive public forum in which narratives of life under the regime could be heard. Perhaps the most powerful object in the show is Williamson’s Memorial to the TRC (2016), a small cenotaph of concrete and fiberglass topped by etched glass that shimmers with aqueous depth.

A large dark room with two screens of two Black women
Sue Williamson and Siyah Ndawela Mgoduka, That particular morning, 2019, from ‘No More Fairy Tales’, 2016–19, two-channel video, color, sound. Courtesy:  © Sue Williamson and Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, Johannesburg, and London.

Elsewhere, Williamson’s memory work is more literal, as in the 28-minute film That Particular Morning (2019), in which Siyah Ndawela Mgoduka asks his mother, Doreen, long-simmering questions about their lives, particularly about his father Mbambalala, who was killed by a car bomb in 1989. For Mgoduka, a recent engagement resurfaced powerful anxieties; for Williamson, the film is part of a larger response to the lives of the ‘born free’ generation – those born after Apartheid ended – who still bear traumas of the past. Her work has long been driven by a conceptual, even forensic impulse, and the spare rigor of this film make it something more than art: a mode of activism that strikes into the invisible, mnemonic terrain where Apartheid did much of its damage.

Black and white image of a figure in a cityscape, the scales wonky
Lebohang Kganye, Untouched by the Ancient Caress of Time, 2022, fiberboard, cardboard, light. Courtesy: © Lebohang Kganye

Kganye’s approach is less focused on language but is, too, a kind of memory work. Trained in television production, she uses thick honeycombed cardboard as a substrate for images and scenes that, in spite of their artifice, snap into focus like dioramas. Sometimes these are filmed, as in Pied Piper’s Voyage (2014), Kganye’s earnest re-enactment of her grandfather’s migration from country to city in search of work – a quintessentially South African story. In conversation with relatives or sorting through old photographs, she begins to re-assemble a family story fractured by time and loss. Perhaps most affecting is Ke Lefa Leka: Her-story (2013), a series of 55 colour snapshots arrayed in a casual grid, as one might see in suburban home. These candid scenes from everyday life depict Kganye’s late mother haloed by a ghostly double – the artist herself, who has overlaid her own image into the scene as a means of drawing the past closer, learning it in her bones. Memory is always an act of re-inscription rather than simple recall: in ‘Tell Me What You Remember’, it is revealed as an unending, intergenerational conversation.

Sue Williamson & Lebohang Kganye, ‘Tell Me What You Remember’ is on view at Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, until May 21, 2023.

Main image: Sue Williamson, A Tale of Two Cradocks, 1994, 22 archival inkjet prints on paper, wood, extruded acetate, brass hinges, 43 × 500 × 25 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, Johannesburg, and London

Ian Bourland is a critic and associate professor of art history at Georgetown University, USA. He writes widely on art, pop culture and aesthetics, and has published two books, Bloodflowers (Duke University Press, 2019) and Blue Lines (Bloomsbury, 2019).