Reminders of racism in South Africa

Critic's Choice: Art

January 20, 2002|By Holly Selby

In the '70s and '80s, the South African government systematically destroyed District Six, a multiracial community near Capetown, to create a "white area." Artist Sue Williamson visited the community in 1981, on the eve of the destruction of the last homes; the result was an installation called "The Last Supper."

Twelve years later, Williamson revisited District Six, rebuilt as a white community. From bits of debris gathered on her return trip, she created "The Last Supper Revisited," now on view through Jan. 27 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art in Washington.

Williamson's installation consists of a dining table set with 191 remnants from the 65,000 lives that were irrevocably altered by the destruction of the once-vibrant community. The artist, who lives in Cape Town, gathered buttons, torn fabric, a doll's shoe, a hair clip beaded with pearls, newspaper fragments, and coated them with hard resin. They now form small, clear blocks that remind us of the former residents' lives.

The table is surrounded by photographs of a District Six family as its members celebrate the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr. In the background, visitors hear the sounds of bulldozers and the local muzzein calling the faithful to prayer. "The piece is both a celebration of a community that once was and an indictment of the state that destroyed it," says Williamson. "There's a sense of irony in it, too: These little blocks are made by casting the archaeological bits inside resin similar to the way souvenirs are made. They are, in a way, souvenirs of something we should never forget."

The National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. S.W., is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. For information, call 202-357-4600.

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