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Sue Williamson, ‘Messages from the Atlantic Passage’ (2017)

For Artwork in Focus we explore individual artworks, critiquing their style and discussing their socio-political context. Today we look at Messages from the Atlantic Passage by Sue Williamson.

About the Work

Title : Messages from the Atlantic Passage
Artist : Sue Williamson
Medium : Multimedia
Dimensions : Variable

Williamson’s Work

Internationally recognized for her work, Sue Williamson is a Cape Town based artist. Williamson is represented in many public collections including the Tate Modern and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Recovering histories is an essential part of Sue Williamson’s artistic career. “I am interested in the effects of colonialism on people,” says the 77-year-old. She showcases her work through videos and installations and has participated in the Havana, Sydney, Istanbul, Dakar, Johannesburg and Venice Biennales. She claims that 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.”

Messages from the Atlantic Passage at the Kochi Biennale 2018

Williamson’s, ‘Messages from the Atlantic Passage’ at Aspinwall House wowed the audiences at the Kochi Biennale. A ceiling hung with five fishing nets, filled with muddy glass bottles, with water flowing through them and falling into rectangular sections on the floor. The section of water resembled the Atlantic ocean. Each of the 2000 bottles is inscribed with the name of a slave.

The hanging from the ceilings the installation has a breathtaking impact. Sue wanted to highlight the 12 ½ million (sic) West Africans who were sent by ship to America over 300 years to work, as slaves. There was a high demand for slaves in the cotton plantations in America as well as the sugarcane fields in the Caribbean. “I wanted to say that it was inhumane,” says Sue. “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.”

The artistic installation sends a shiver down the spines of those who witness it, giving a brief glimpse that leaves a lasting impression. There has never really been a proper apology for the crimes committed in the name of business and work.

The Kochi Biennale effectively showcases art projects that questions, inquiries and places several historic events in the current and relevant context. Williamsons 119 Deeds, also on show at Aspinwall house attempts to pay homage to all those who lost their families, homes, identities and their independence at the altar of colonialism.


To learn more about iconic artworks and their socio-political context, visit Artwork in Focus.

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