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Sue Williamson

Updated: Sep 18, 2018

All Our Mothers

The exhibition ‘All Our Mothers’ and the video installation, There’s something I must tell you represents the closing of a circle for me. A generational circle. It started in the early 1980s, when I photographed women involved in the struggle against apartheid for a series of etched and screenprinted portraits. Some of the remarkable women I met at that time were Amina Cachalia, Helen Joseph, Mamphela Ramphele, Caroline Motsoaledi. That series was called A Few South Africans. My intention then was to bring those women and their histories to a wider audience. Postcards that were 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 portrait postcards are part of an exhibition of prints from South Africa.

I am waiting for our Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, who is coming with a party from the South African consulate to view the show, ‘Impressions from South Africa, 1965 to Now’. When I am introduced to the Deputy President before we enter the gallery, he says to me, ‘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 with her again and start revisiting the women of the Mandela generation with the intention of starting a new series of work. She laughs and agrees. We are nearly 20 years into a democratic society, and I have many questions to ask these great 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 a recorded discussion, 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 likely to be more carefully considered. Thus, the idea of staging a series of conversations to investigate these questions grew.


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