On a lazy Sunday afternoon in London, my friend Alex and I made our way to the Tate Modern to do as Londoners do on a Sunday and take in some art. I’ve always loved the Tate, with its vast industrial spaces and the feeling of peace that emanates around some of the world’s most prolific art pieces. It’s a calm and tranquil space that allows for introspection.
Making our way through the rooms of abstract art, we eventually walked into the Citizens and States exhibition. The works in this room were made in turbulent times as interventions in political debates and often drawing attention to those who have campaigned for citizenship and civil rights.
One such stirring work is Flag 1 by Teresa Margolles. The flag was created as a memorial for the thousands of Mexican citizens killed in drug wars. Teresa Margolles collected blood from murder scenes throughout Mexico and later transferred them to cloth, and hung a blood-stained flag outside the Mexican pavilion in remembrance of the citizens that the government would rather forget.
While many of the works in this room moved me, it was the series of portraits of South African women by Sue Williamson which I connected with.
As a South African artist, Williamson was closely involved in the struggle against apartheid. Her series titled A few South Africans, focuses on women like Albertina Sisula, Helen Joseph and Caroline Mostsoaledi; women who fought against apartheid in an attempt to make visible the history of women involved in the struggle for freedom. This series of prints celebrates the often unsung role played by women in the campaign.
This series was deeply moving for me as it was an unexpected opportunity to connect with my history and culture in a place far removed from native country. From the rich beautiful colours, layered silk screens and the haunting histories of each of the women, I was transported back to South Africa. Their faces reminded me of home and in them – kindred spirits.
In many ways, the word Citizens spoke to me as I examined parts of my own citizenship; a South African who holds duel citizenship with the United Kingdom. Gazing into the faces of these women, I wrestled with thoughts of my Anglo-South African identity coupled with the longing to maintain a connection with my South African roots and embracing life in the UK. It’s a constant theme in my life, and one I’ve written about before.
There, surrounded by the white walls of the Tate Modern on a grey English day, I was grateful to be reminded of my country’s history and the significance of her past. As things back home reach an ever increasing ebb of tension and racial unease, it is comforting to reflect on these women who left an enduring legacy that helped bring South Africa through the darkest period of her history.