Goodman Gallery is pleased to present Distant Visions: Postcards from Africa, an exhibition of new works from Sue Williamson.
Williamson’s new series of drawings, Postcards from Africa, continues the artist’s interest in the power of a small printed image to carry news of a specific moment in time to a far off audience, sometimes current, sometimes separated from the event by a century. Her early series of etchings The Modderdam Postcards (1978) was based on sketches made over seven days while witnessing the destruction by the apartheid state of an informal settlement near the airport in Cape Town. Postcards made from A Few South Africans, (1983-86), mixed media portraits of heroic women active in the struggle for liberation, were distributed not only across the country, but the world.
Most recently, the artist has turned her attention to vintage postcards of photographs taken by European colonisers in Africa in the first decades of the 20th century, who used the postcards as examples of the success of their missions, supposedly demonstrating the civilising effect of colonisation on the colonised, or presenting views of exotic Africa for the edification of folks back home.
Sourcing these postcards from museum archives or from the internet, Williamson reverts to classic drawing techniques. She dips her pen into a bottle of ink, building up images with layers of intricate cross hatching, adding colour from a limited palette to reproduce the rural landscapes on the postcards, or capture the scenes of daily community life: harvesting, swimming, gathering wood.
In each drawing within the series, signs of habitation remain visible —dwellings, boats, a pile of coconuts, baskets — but the people who appeared on the original postcard no longer appear. The absence of the people from the landscape presents an uncomfortable tension from which a series of questions emerge — where are the people who used to live here? What happened to them? These questions point to the complexity of subverting the colonial gaze —how does one challenge the gaze while also taking care not to perpetuate violence through recirculation of images that re-invoke their original racist and oppressive context?
Thus the Postcards from Africa series considers a critical moment in history and wrestles with the complex history of colonial expansion and conquest captured through the postcard industry. It also continues Williamson’s investigation into the history of slavery, dispossession and displacement, beginning with her 1997 installation, Messages from the Moat, which was a detailed record of the buying and selling of enslaved people in the Cape of Good Hope, and continued with Messages from the Atlantic Passage (2017) which referenced old shipping records to focus on the trans Atlantic slave trade.
Postcards hold traces of historical memory, and through her evocative ink drawings with their deliberate erasures, Williamson seeks to confront the painful and unresolved legacies of colonialism — an important juncture in world history that has never been fully reckoned with, and whose catastrophic effects continue to be felt by millions of dispossessed peoples across the globe. In this instance, the absence makes the violence visible.