Postcards from Africa

In the series Postcards from Africa, Sue Williamson turns her attention to vintage postcards of photographs taken by European colonizers in Africa in the first decades of the 20th century. Part of a global craze for postcards, these were sent out as examples which supposedly demonstrated the civilizing effect of colonisation on the colonised, or presented views of exotic Africa for the edification of the folks back home.

 

Using museum archives or the internet to source the postcards, Williamson reverts to classic drawing technique, dipping her pens and brushes into bottles of ink to build up images with layers of intricate cross hatching and adding colour from a limited palette.

 

In each drawing, signs of habitation remain visible —dwellings, boats, a pile of coconuts — but the people who appeared on the original postcard no longer appear. The absence of the people from the landscape presents an uncomfortable tension from which a series of questions emerge — where are the people who used to live here? What happened to them? These questions point to the complexity of subverting the colonial gaze —how does one challenge the gaze while also taking care not to perpetuate violence through recirculation of images that re- invoke their original racist and oppressive context?

 

Thus the Postcards from Africa series considers a critical moment in history and wrestles with the complex history of colonial expansion and conquest captured through the postcard industry.

 

Postcards hold traces of historical memory, and through her evocative ink drawings with their deliberate erasures, Williamson seeks to confront the painful and unresolved legacies of colonialism — an important juncture in world history that has never been fully reckoned with, and whose catastrophic effects continue to be felt by millions of dispossessed peoples across the globe. In this instance, the absence makes the violence visible.