For Artwork in Focus we explore individual artworks, critiquing their style and discussing their socio-political context. Today we look at One Hundred and Nineteen Deeds of Sale by Sue Williamson.
About the Artwork
Title : One Hundred and Nineteen Deeds of Sale
Artist : Sue Williamson
Medium : Mixed media installation including linen shirts, clothesline
Sue Williamson is a Cape Town based artist who is recognized internationally for her work. She is especially keen on researching and contextualising troubled histories. Sue is represented in many acclaimed public collections – including the Tate Modern and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Although trained as a printmaker, Williamson also works in installation, photography and video. She is part of the pioneering generation of South African artists who started to make work in the 1970s which addressed social change in what was then apartheid South Africa.
Seen at Kochie-Muziris Biennale 2018
The side of Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi has an interesting installation that hits home for making the banal into a centrepiece. Linen undershirts, pinned on a clothesline, are flying in the breeze, it would seem like an everyday garment familiar in India but a closer look reveals something different. On the front, the following words are inscribed in black ink: Name: Jacob. Place of birth: Malabar. Age: 12. Seller: Antony. Buyer: Aram. Price: Rds 20. Sold at: Cape Town, 16.5.1687.
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.
Through this powerful piece Sue highlights the grim realities of 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 cloth 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.
A Story of Slavery
The slave trade began in 1658. “The slaves were mostly men in their prime,” says Sue. “But women and children were also taken along.” South African historian Nigel Worden, research paper- ‘Indian Ocean Slaves in Cape Town, 1695–1807’, cites “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 who was sold by her mother because of poverty to a Dutch East India Company employee at the trading post at Nagapattinam (Tamil Nadu), and, after three transfers of ownership and a change of name, was finally shipped to the Cape. There, 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.”
Sue research is based on the records at the Cape Town Deeds Office. “It has been very well preserved,” she says.
The Kochi Bienniale saw yet another work by this artist titled Messages from the Atlantic – also at the Aspinwallhouse. The installation deals with the physical inhumanity of the slave trade while the 119 Deeds of Sale tells the story of loss. A name floating in the wind, and all that remains of the person is the memory. But they were real people. They were somebody and meant something to somebody, and now she in a small way her memory is honoured. Not a nameless number in a record room.
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