Sue Williamson’s multi-screen video installation There’s something I must tell you portrays six intense conversations, in which the older women involved with South Africa’s struggle against Apartheid engage in a dialogue with younger women connected to them. As the older generation recalls important moments in their histories, the younger women respond, and present their own forthright perspectives on living in current-day South Africa. Stories of resistance, imprisonment, exile, of the renowned “Women’s March” to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, evoke a central question: Was it all worth it? The answers are complex and surprising.
While making the series, Williamson worked with key figures including the charismatic Amina Cachalia, the distinguished Dr. Brigalia Bam, the 101-year-old Rebecca Kotane, Carollne Motsoaledi, widow of Rivonia triallist Elias Motsoaledi, Ilse Fischer, activist daughter of Afrikaner lawyer Bram Fischer, and liberation movement heroine Vesta Smith.
Amina Cachalia and Caroline Motsoaledi were two of the women(among others)portrayed in Williamson’s portfolio of prints in the 1980s titled, A Few South Africans. This series was reproduced and widely distributed as postcards at a time when images of these women were rarely seen in the press. Today, those postcards and prints are in such museum collections as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the V&A Museum in London, The Newark Museum, NJ, Wheaton College, MA, and the Walther Collection in Germany.
There’s something I must tell you represents the closing of a circle for me. A generational circle. It started in the early 80s, when I photographed women involved in the struggle against apartheid for a series of etched and screenprinted portraits. Some of the women I met at that time were Amina Cachalia, Helen Joseph and Mamphela Ramphele. That series was called A Few South Africans. My intention then was to bring those remarkable women and their histories to a wider audience. Postcards made from the series popped up everywhere.
Fast forward thirty years. It is 2011, and I am in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where the postcards are part of an exhibition of prints from South Africa. South African Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe arrives with a party from the consulate to view the show. When I am introduced to him before we enter, he says, “You are the one who made the portraits of all our mothers.”
Two months later, Albertina Sisulu dies. What a loss to the nation. A week after that, Amina Cachalia phones me to invite me to contribute to her autobiography. I tell Amina I want to come up to Johannesburg soon to meet up with her again and start revisiting the women of the Mandela generation. She laughs and agrees.
We are nearly 20 years into a democratic society, 20 years past the unbelievable moment when South Africa pulled back from the brink, and I have many questions to ask these leaders of women, these seasoned activists. How is life for them now? Are their histories of harassment, jail and exile valued by the young generation born since the coming of freedom? Were the sacrifices worth it? Knowing what they know now, would they do it all again?
And their granddaughters, the ‘born frees’, what are their views? As one young woman says, they know apartheid “only as a textbook version.” What is it that they know, exactly? How do they feel about the struggle of their grandmothers? Would they be prepared to act in the same way? And what are their dreams for themselves?
In an interview situation, those being interviewed often express themselves more forthrightly than they would over a Sunday lunch with their families. Difficult questions can be asked and the answers are carefully considered. Thus, the idea of staging a series of conversations to investigate these questions grew.
Six screens reflect each conversation. The black and white images on the left are largely copied from the family albums of the senior women, giving a glimpse into their lives as children, as young women, and then as older women. The two vertical portraits in the centre of the installation are taken outside the family home. As we, the audience, follow the conversation between the women, we are, in turn, being regarded by the women who are gazing directly into the camera. Another circle, this one of engagement.
The stories the older women tell are about the hard struggle for freedom in South Africa, but the clear bond between grandmothers and their granddaughters is universal. “Everyone thinks they have the best grandmother,” says Luiza Cachalia. “Grandmothers are nurturers.”
There’s something I must tell you.