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Sue Williamson, For Thirty Years Next to His Heart

Video by The Museum of Modern Art

Sue Williamson, For Thirty Years Next to His Heart, 1990, Forty-nine photocopies in artist-designed frames, overall (approx.): 72 x 103″ (182.9 x 261.6 cm) (The Museum of Modern Art)

Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, the Steven and Lisa Tananbaum Curator of Painting and Sculpture, looks at Sue Williamson’s “For Thirty Years Next to His Heart,” in which the 30-year life of one man’s official government passbook “captures the experience of Black South Africans under apartheid”—and serves as a reminder that we must not forget the most difficult chapters of our history.
Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

UGOCHUKWU-SMOOTH NZEWI: What keeps me returning to this work-- in the passage of time, we tend to forget dark pages of history-- and so what this work does is that it serves as a historical reminder, not to forget difficult moments that we've experienced in history. My name is Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi, I'm the Steven and Lisa Tananbaum Curator in Painting and Sculpture at MoMA. We are looking at this incredible "Thirty Years Next to His Heart" by the South African artist Sue Williamson. I spent a year in South Africa in 2005, and in that time, I had the opportunity of meeting the artist, Sue Williamson. And I got to know of her incredible role in the anti-apartheid movement, as an artist but also as a writer, and the way in which her work was centered in capturing the sociopolitical circumstances of apartheid. Williamson photocopied the pages of a passbook that belonged to John Ngesi, a dockworker, who carried this passbook for 30 years, close to his heart. Without this passbook, Ngesi would not have been able to find formal employment. And this, in a way, captures the experiences of Black South Africans under apartheid, a system of racial segregation that started in 1948 and which ended in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela as the first president of democratic South Africa. The work comprises of 49 panels arranged in a grid. We see the quasi-cinematic narrative of a man's life unfold. In the first panel, it shows a xeroxed photograph of Ngesi's fingers inserting, the battered, weather-beaten passbook, and the interior breast pocket of his overcoat. With that, we are invited to look at this picture of intimacy of this man's life for 30 years. This life continues to unravel as you go through the panels. And then you see smudged signatures and, of course, the bureaucratic stamps of the apartheid system. The work concludes with a signature of the artist, Sue Williamson, and a stamp dated to 1990, the day the work was produced. And she continues to return to the aftermaths and ramifications of apartheid in present-day South Africa. What we see here is the artist being-- being a witness of this incredible personal history of Ngesi that intersects with the collective memory of a very dark period in South Africa's history.