South African artist Sue Williamson’s installations at the Kochi Muziris Biennale focus on the slave trade from Kochi and other parts of India to Cape Town, as well as the slave trade from Africa to the United States
Photos: Sue Williamson. Pic by Albin Mathew; the linen banians
By Shevlin Sebastian
At the side of Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi, the linen banians, pinned on a clothesline, are flying in the breeze. It would seem like an everyday garment in India but a closer look reveals something different. On the front, the following words are inscribed in red and black ink: Name: Jacob. Place of birth: Malabar. Age: 12. Seller: Antony. Buyer: Aram. Price: Rds 20. Sold at: Cape Town, 16.5.1687. (Rds is Rijksdollars: the Dutch currency of that period).
This is an installation by South African artist Sue Williamson, called ‘One Hundred and Nineteen Deeds of Sale’. This number represents every day of the duration of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, from December 12, 2018, to March 29, 2019.
Sue was trying to highlight the slave trade which took place between Kochi and Cape Town. The ships of the Dutch East India Company would pick up coffee, china, spices, and chintz from South and South-East Asia and take it back to the Netherlands. On the way, they would stop at Cape Town and stay at the company-owned fort, the Castle of Good Hope. “But because there was a shortage of labour, to work in the vegetable gardens, they would buy slaves from Kochi and other parts of India and take them to Cape Town,” says Sue.
The trade began in 1658. “The slaves were mostly men in their prime,” says Sue. “But women and children were also taken along.” In fact, South African historian Nigel Worden, in a research paper titled ‘Indian Ocean Slaves in Cape Town, 1695–1807’, wrote, “In 1731, one of the few years for which we have a complete demographic profile of Cape Town, the slaves formed 42.2 percent of the population. Out of this, around 26 percent came from India.”
Nigel details one clear example. A 10-year-old girl named China was sold by her mother because of poverty to a Dutch East India Company employee at the trading post at Nagapattinam (Tamil Nadu). She ended up as ‘Rosa’ working at the Groot Constantia wine estate outside Cape Town.
“This migration was a lesser-known event in world history, because it was not on a very large scale,” says Sue. “Maybe, a few thousands over 150 years. The British outlawed it in 1834.”
Incidentally, Sue got the information by studying the records at the Cape Town Deeds Office. “It has been very well preserved,” she says. “In fact, South Africa has the best slave records in the world. I also read a book on the slave trade by historian Anna Boeseken as well as Nigel’s study.”
Sue’s other installation, ‘Messages from the Atlantic Passage. at Aspinwall House drew gasps of breath. In a hall, with a very high ceiling, five fishing nets, filled with muddy glass bottles, are hanging and water is flowing through them and falling into rectangular sections on the floor that resemble the Atlantic ocean. In fact, each of the 2000 bottles is inscribed with the name of a slave.
Sue wanted to highlight the 12 ½ million West Africans who were sent by ship to America over 300 years to work, as slaves, in the cotton plantations in America as well as the sugarcane fields in the Caribbean.
“I wanted to say that it was inhumane,” she says. “Like a fisherman casting his net, only, in this case, they were catching people, and not fishes. The bottles are a metaphor for the people. It was a time when people were treated like cheap commodities. And these people were jammed in the hold of the ships. If you see sketches, you will see people lying side by side, like tiny little fishes.”
Sue has spent her artistic career in recovering histories. “I am interested in the effects of colonialism on people,” says the 77-year-old. But she displays her work through videos and installations and has participated in the Havana, Sydney, Istanbul, Dakar, Johannesburg and Venice Biennales. But the Kochi Biennale has a charm of its own. “It may be for the first time that women artists are dominant,” she says. “I love the vibrancy and the energy of the Biennale. The people are very friendly and proud of their city.”
South Africa today: the need to remember and reconcile
South African artist Sue Williamson says, “There is a feeling among young black South Africans that when they try to bring up the subject of apartheid, the whites say, ‘It is over now. Get over it. We don’t want to talk about it any more’. There has never been a proper apology by the whites. So, there is resentment. The whites have to recognise that there was a system of apartheid even though they may not have directly participated in the repression. But they went to white schools, belonged to white clubs and stayed in white neighbourhoods. They had lived in a bubble.”
The situation in South Africa at present is not transforming enough. “Education is still not equal,” says Sue. “If you don’t have enough money you cannot send your children to the best schools. Unfortunately, the public schools are not that great.
Young people are graduating with insufficient education and hence they cannot compete in the economy and remain unemployed. This has caused resentment and bitterness and has led to a lot of violence.”
(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)