Sue Williamson’s ‘Other Voices, Other Cities’ is a project that was born in the
face of several odds. At the Havana Biennale in 2009 — within a precarious,
insular, socio-political context shaped by economic blockade and meager
resources — the artist collected testimonies from a local fishing community,
hoping to voice their concerns and grievances in public spaces. Censorship was
certain. The local authorities attempted to contain her letters, cut out in forms
dictated by the people, within controlled interior spaces. The antagonism led to
the subversive act of temporarily, at times covertly, propping up telling
statements in public spaces to which they relate, so that they can remain
permanently in the enduring memory of a photograph. If a group of people
were to alert the world to one statement about their condition at a particular
moment in a particular place to which they belong, what would it be? It could be
a warning, experience, confession, or testimony.
In Delhi, the fourteenth city to partake in this exercise, the artist’s notes from
hours of reflection with a group of local residents similarly resonate an
extraordinary moment at the confluence of history, memory, witnessing,
acceptance and denial. In a city that has witnessed the rise and fall of empires
time and time again, built almost entirely from immigrants, and is now the seat
of power, how can we all live together? The statement does not pretend
empathy, except in the mutual ‘unknowability’ of each other’s experience.
Almost as if whispering tenderly to a living, breathing organism — perhaps even
a lover — the group acknowledged their relationship to the complex web of
material and immaterial relations in the city: “Delhi, we know you but we don’t
know you.” It is only by confessing the impossibility of placing oneself in
another’s shoes — however familiar they may seem — can there be generative
conversation. Silently, the subtext lingers: “Please tell me, I am willing to listen.”
The space that the group, along with Williamson chose to contextualize their
statement further amplifies the city’s resilience amid even the unfavorable destinies that it has
been endowed. In the New Delhi Railway Station area, where throngs enter and leave everyday,
peppered with impermanent shanty rooftop shelters, one-night cheap hotels and small, family-run
shops that have been around for decades, the statement is a melancholy embrace of all that we can possibly know in this permanently fragile, permanently transient eco-system, along with its
strangers — for we are all strangers to someone — whose stories cannot be fully comprehended.
Looming in the background is an unkempt mosque; the foreground projects a bright propaganda poster
from a local right- wing political party leader in the event of a Hindu festival. Seemingly
to both, crowds consumed by their everyday lives float through the lens of the camera, while for a
minute or two, traffic stalls patiently for the group to perform their temporary occupation of the
streets. Through the conversations at the workshop, the consensus pointed towards a question:
Delhi, who are you? Can any of us really claim to know this complicated, confusing organism that is
full of contradictions? Can we claim to know each other’s encounters with the city despite having
worked together closely for a few days? From the oxymoronic statement encapsulating intimacy and
estrangement, a third possibility emerges Hope.
The two-channel video, It’s a pleasure to meet you contextualizes the series with
the rest of Williamson’s practice. From her post-apartheid context in South
Africa, she has been probing the process of reconciliation. Her work observes
the weight of historical error, and consequent personal and generational trauma.
From a vantage point of deep awareness, in It’s a pleasure to meet you she
creates a space for the process of narrativizing unthinkable horror and silence.
From collective testimonies in ‘Other Voices, Other Cities’, we move to intersubjective,
cathartic re-telling through a conversation between Candice Mama
and Siyah Mgoduka, who share stories about their fathers who were killed by
apartheid assassins. The camera is once again a witness, receiving the memory
of their encounter.