Sue Williamson Sends a Collective SOS

A commanding work by the South African artist speaks of individual lives and heinous crimes, addressing the history of slavery and human transportation over the Middle Passage between 1525 and 1866—with 2000 cries of SOS which have nowhere to go.

Message from the Atlantic Passage, 2017 displayed Art Basel Unlimited. Photo by The Image Gate

In June 2017, Sue Williamson was the only South African artist to be included in Basel Unlimited—the downstairs section of Art Basel which houses larger works from select individual artists in its hangar-like space. It was Williamson’s Notes from the Atlantic Passage which was shown, an extension of her 1997 work Messages from the Moat which listed every slave brought to the Cape of Good Hope by the Dutch East India Company.

Notes from the Atlantic Passage is strikingly formed—bottles and bottles secured with large metal grips around their necks, hanging one from another by thick chains. Some are held en masse in the weight of five sturdy fishing nets, while others hang down into pools of water at ground level. Each bottle contains traces of earth and is engraved with information about different slaves—names, prices, owners, plantations—in reference to the 12.5 million Africans (of which 10.7 million survived) shipped across the Middle Passage between 1525 and 1866.

“The work consists of five ‘tanks’ representing five specific voyages,” the artist wrote in a diary which recorded her days installing at the fair. “Each bottle is hand engraved with the name and details of one person on that voyage, an attempt at referring to what cultural theorist Achille Mbembe has described as ‘the archive of a crime which is not recognized as such.’” 

Preparatory sketches for Messages from the Atlantic Passage
Preparatory sketches for Messages from the Atlantic Passage

The bottles, chained around the neck, of course call to mind the horrifyingly sadistic method of transport and treatment of the souls on board the ships, and also evoke the idea of a message in a bottle, typically thrown out to sea as calls for SOS—of course, these bottles would have nowhere to go if they were to take to sea, as they are so securely connected with one another, and with their nets. They are cries for help with no hope of help.

“The idea of the bottles and nets is based on how people were treated like very cheap commodities,” the artist has said. Williamson is the featured artist at FNB Joburg Art Fair and is showing the work with Goodman Gallery.

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