South African contemporary artists at Barnes Foundation

The Barnes Foundation (Philadelphia) presents Sue Williamson & Lebohang Kganye: Tell Me What You Remember. Bringing together the work of two of the most acclaimed South African contemporary artists, the exhibition offers a cross-generational dialogue on history, memory, and the power of self-narration in the context of apartheid and its legacies. On view from March 5 through May 21, 2023, and curated by Emma Lewis, curator at Turner Contemporary, Margate, England, this exhibition is the most significant presentation of each artist in the US to date, and the first time their work has been presented in dialogue.

Three decades after the dismantling of apartheid began, the generation born during the transition to democracy has reached adulthood and its artists have used their work to navigate their difficult inheritance. At the same time, the distance between their experience and that of an older generation grows. Sue Williamson & Lebohang Kganye: Tell Me What You Remember reflects upon this moment.

In their respective practices, South African contemporary artists Sue Williamson (b. 1941) and Lebohang Kganye (b. 1990) incorporate oral histories into film, photographs, installations, and textiles to consider how the stories elders share—and what they choose to withhold—shape family narratives and personal identities. Exploring the complexities involved in the passing down of memories, their works implicitly and explicitly address racial violence, social injustice, and intergenerational trauma.

Dr. Albert C. Barnes’s commitment to racial equality, social justice, and education is the historical legacy that we have worked hard to extend and grow in everything we do at the Barnes,” Thom Collins, Neubauer Family Executive Director and President, said. “For our first exhibition of 2023, we are proud to present the work of two acclaimed South African artists, Sue Williamson and Lebohang Kganye. Highlighting the ways in which artists are responding to a critical moment in contemporary South Africa, this is a prescient exhibition that invites audiences to consider how the current political and social landscape in the United States has resonance in a global context.”

Williamson’s early works represent her use of first-person testimony as a means of documenting and contributing to the struggle against apartheid; later, she recorded conversations between women with firsthand experience of enforced segregation and their children or grandchildren—the so-called “born frees.”

Kganye draws on conversations with her grandmother and aunts to trace her ancestral roots, revealing histories of displacement and dispossession and highlighting storytelling and song as modes of resistance.

By inviting these South African contemporary artists into dialogue, this exhibition is a conversation between women of two generations with shared conviction in the profound importance—and complexity—of recording living memories.

This exhibition features 15 bodies of work, including video installations, photographs, sculptural installations, and textiles. 

Exhibition Highlights

  • Three works from Sue Williamson’s series Truth Games (1998), which highlights important cases investigated by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Each piece pictures an accuser, a defender, and the event in question. Text lifted from press reports of courtroom evidence is printed on slats that obscure sections of the work. By sliding these slats across the image, viewers are invited to engage with the event and critique how testimony was disseminated by the media.
     
  • Lebohang Kganye’s Mohlokomedi wa Tora (2018), a photographic installation that represents how Kganye’s family’s migration, owing to land acts and apartheid law, resulted in four different spellings of their surname. A central rotating light represents the Sesotho word for light, kganya, which is the etymology of this name. Mohlokomedi suggests the vocation of caretaker, tending to the light that symbolizes her ancestral inheritance.
     
  • Two dual-channel video installations by Williamson,What Is This Thing Called Freedom? (2016) andThat Particular Morning (2019), from her series No More Fairy Tales. Made 20 years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and shortly after student protests that swept South Africa, when it became clear that many of apartheid’s wounds remain unhealed, these filmed conversations between grandmothers and mothers and their adult children explore intergenerational understanding.
     
  • Williamson’s The Lost District (2019), a painted map of the area of District Six, from which 60,000 residents were forcibly removed between 1968 and 1982. Signage and etched glass panels are installed on the map. When lit, these panels cast shadows that describe the area as it once was. The work is accompanied by oral histories and soundscapes that Williamson made in the community in 1981.
     
  • Kganye’s Dipina tsa Kganya (2021), a three-channel video installation featuring the artist in two performances inspired by the Sesotho oral tradition of direto, the praise-singing of clan names as a way of passing down the origins of the family story as an act of resistance to historical erasure.
     
  • Kganye’s In Search for Memory (2020/2022), in which the artist uses her characteristic technique of cutting out and rearranging archival photographs into stagelike sets to call attention to the gaps, inconsistencies, and fabrications that shape how memories are constructed and passed down. In this series of photographs and accompanying diorama, Kganye creates scenes that imagine a protagonist traveling between apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa and an imagined future to which Nelson Mandela returns.

“At a time of intensified interest in how the ‘past’ is written, and by whom, Sue Williamson and Lebohang Kganye’s engagement with oral histories reminds us of the quiet urgency of collecting living memories, especially those that speak across the generational divide. This important task resonates far beyond the contexts in which the two artists work,” curator Emma Lewis said. “By bringing into dialogue their varied work with conversation, statement, story, and song, the exhibition explores the very different ways that art can be mobilized to reveal the power—and partiality—of self-narration.”

To learn more about works 0f South African contemporary artists in Sue Williamson & Lebohang Kganye: Tell Me What You Remember, visitors can use Barnes Focus, a mobile guide that works on any smartphone with a web browser. To use it, visitors simply open the guide by navigating to barnesfoc.us on a mobile browser and focus on a work of art; the guide will recognize the work and deliver information about it. Barnes Focus also leverages the Google Translate API, so you can automatically translate the guide into a variety of languages. 

ABOUT THE ARTISTS

Sue Williamson (b. 1941, Lichfield, England) emigrated with her family to South Africa in 1948 and today lives and works in Cape Town. Trained as a printmaker, Williamson also works in installation, photography, and video. In the 1970s, she started to make work that addressed social change during apartheid, and by the 1980s, she was well known for her series of portraits of women involved in the country’s political struggle.

Williamson’s works feature in public collections across the globe, including those at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate Modern, London; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Centre Pompidou, Paris; National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; Wifredo Lam Centre, Havana; Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town; and Johannesburg Art Gallery.

Lebohang Kganye (b. 1990, Katlehong, South Africa) lives and works in Johannesburg. Kganye received her introduction to photography at the Market Photo Workshop, Johannesburg, in 2009, and completed the advanced photography program in 2011. She obtained a diploma in fine arts from the University of Johannesburg in 2014 and is currently completing an MFA at Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg.

Notable awards include the Grand Prix Images Vevey (2021–22), Paulo Cunha e Silva Art Prize (2020), and Camera Austria Award (2019). As winner of the 2022 Foam Paul Huf Award, in 2023 Kganye will have her first survey exhibition in Europe, Haufi Nyana? I’ve Come to Take You Home, at Foam, Amsterdam.

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