“Statements of protest are scrawled across the walls inside the house like graffiti, implying that this place of intimacy has become a public site of contestation”
One immediately associates photographs of people holding up slogans with acts of civil protest. It is an activity that has not altogether been overlooked by the documentary photographer, who commits demonstrators’ temporary acts of agitation to posterity, disseminating their messages beyond the confines of time and space. In some regards, Sue Williamson’s new body of photographs also documents moments of protest, albeit subdued and with the camera as the only witness.The genesis for her text-based photographs can be traced to her Last Supper in Manley Villa (1981 & 2008) series, social-documentary photos of a family awaiting (and quietly resisting) forced removals during the apartheid era, also included in this exhibition. Statements of protest are scrawled across the walls inside the house like graffiti, implying that this place of intimacy has become a public site of contestation. In her more recent body of work, Williamson finds other ways of inserting text into environments. She co-opts groups of people to participate in holding up the letters of her statements, such as “Even Nothing Works” (photographed in Bern, Switzerland), or “Who is Johannes?” (photographed in Johannesburg and referring to the origins of the city’s name). In so doing she evokes a sense that these declarations are not personal expressions but shared concerns. Enacted and photographed in different parts of the world, including Zimbabwe and Cuba, Williamson positions her statements within a global community, engendering a powerful sense of interconnectivity that transcends boundaries.With giant letters obscuring most of their bodies, Williamson’s multicultural participants do not operate as subjects but mere conscious disseminators of information, inconspicuous protesters. In this way they are present and absent: they parade stoic expressions, which deny the viewer’s gaze. In some instances Williamson doesn’t employ people to display her messages, choosing simply to lean the letters up against a wall or insert them digitally into the image in post-production. There is a discernable difference between the two: the photographs with people are intrinsically more confrontational and the text is foregrounded, whereas in the urban or landscape shots the text reads more like an appendage which overtly activates meaning rather than reading like an act of protest. This is the case with My son left (2009), a work refused display on this year’s Havana Biennial. Photographed in Cojimar, Cuba, the photograph shows the phrase in the title placed next to the remains of a defunct building. In this instance the text operates a bit like a plaque, marking history and embedding it into the landscape in such a way that the topography is redefined.Conversely, in The Blockade is also in the Mind (2009), a photograph made on a film set in Havana, the title phrase is inserted above the entrance to a house on top of which a heavy wall of concrete appears to be built. The setting simply operates as a physical or literal marker of an abstract set of ideas. In the manner of the conceptualist, Williamson’s verbal interjections are the art objects and the landscapes and subjects become the malleable tools that facilitate their expression.