Sue Williamson and Lebohang Kganye: Tell Me What You Remember | Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

BY Stan Mir, May 1, 2023

Tell Me What You Remember, on view through May 21, pairs Sue Williamson (born in 1941) and Lebohang Kganye (born in 1990), both South African. Their work engages with memory, notions of family, and the long-term effects of apartheid. While the exhibition consists mostly of video and photography, neither artist considers herself a photographer, but rather an artist who uses the medium.

Williamson, the elder of the two, emigrated to South Africa from England at the age of seven. Before becoming an artist, she trained as a journalist, and this background carries over into her work, in which the acute observation of apartheid-related disparities plays a key part. Williamson consistently shows an awareness of her privilege as a white artist during and after apartheid. In a conversation printed in the exhibition catalogue between Williamson and Kganye, Williamson says that artists from her generation believed they had “a moral responsibility to be part of the struggle for liberation.”

Top: ©Lebohang Kganye, Untouched by the ancient caress of time, 2022, from In Search for Memory, 2020–22. Courtesy the artist Bottom: ©Sue Williamson, Storyboard for What is this thing called freedom? (Buhle Siwani), 2016. Courtesy the artist and Goodman Gallery

In A Tale of Two Cradocks (1994), a series of framed images are mounted mid-wall in a horizontal accordion structure. The verso images come from promotional publications that feature the white, segregated parts of the South African town of Cradock. The recto images consist of 12 photographs depicting the Black neighborhood where Matthew Goniwe, a popular schoolteacher and community leader, lived. He was abducted and murdered, along with three other anti-apartheid activists, in 1985, by the government security police. These images make clear the high degree of contradiction between the government’s false presentation and the reality of life in Cradock. 

Much of Williamson’s work from the late 1990s onwards engages the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Authorized and formed by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in 1996, it was a court focused on restorative justice. That Particular Morning (2019), a dual-channel video work, features a conversation with Siyah Ndawela Mgoduka and his mother, Doreen, about the 1989 murder of his father, policeman Mbambalala Glen Mgoduka. Siyah and Williamson had collaborated on an earlier video, It’s a pleasure to meet you (2016), that featured a conversation between Siyah and another young person who had lost her father at a young age.

Until That Particular Morning (2019), mother and son hadn’t discussed the elder Mgoduka’s murder by the apartheid state. Williamson incorporates footage from the TRC of Eugene de Kock, a colonel in the South African police who had been involved in planning the car bombing that killed Mgoduka. Williamson’s talent lies in her ability to capture moments between mother and son that reveal the grotesque impact of apartheid on ordinary citizens.

©Lebohang Kganye, Setshwantso le ngwanaka II from Ke Lefa Laka: Her-story, 2013. Courtesy the artist

Kganye, born just four years before the end of apartheid, also makes extensive use of video. Her work, more performative than journalistic, incorporates dramatic lighting and choreography. Kganye often directs her gaze toward her own family, mapping their history during the apartheid era. Both Kganye and Williamson attempt to capture matrilineal legacies within the families they depict. In the series Ke Lefa Laka: Her-story (2013), the artist restages photographs from her mother’s photo albums, often revisiting the original locations and wearing her mother’s clothes. In many of the images, she appears in the shadow of her mother, to melancholy and haunting effect.

Where Williamson’s video work is direct, Kganye’s is metaphorical. In Dipina tsa Kganya (2021), a three-channel black-and-white video, Kganye plays the role of a lighthouse keeper. The idea for this piece developed when she discovered the little-known history of female lighthouse keepers. When the male keeper would pass away, his spouse would assume the job. This came to symbolize, for Kganye, the role she’s been playing in charting her family history. In the absence of her mother and father, she has been compiling ancestral history to pass along, much like a lighthouse keeper scanning the horizon for information for those at sea.

The juxtaposition of Williamson’s and Kganye’s responses to apartheid creates a rich dialogue about its lasting impact. Where an institution like the TRC can address the legal ramifications, exhibitions like this one can perhaps show more fully that it will take generations for South Africans to free themselves from the tentacles of apartheid.