TRACEY ROSE, Pickaminnie (Sue Williamson), 2008. Courtesy of the artist
Virtually devoid of public institutions, Sub-Saharan Africa is undoubtedly the least legible region of the world in terms of censorship. In a paradoxically flourishing market, artists must, to ensure their economic survival, come to terms with powerful regional patrons while seeking to satisfy an often paternalistic Western demand. Not to mention religious violence.
It is not uncommon to see a gallery owner refusing to continue to represent an artist who is too critical of a corrupt power. Certain specialized fairs do not hesitate either to blacklist African artists whose work is again too critical, even more if the artist is white and the object of his criticism is a black politician, thus the emblematic case of South African artist Anton Kannemeyer, whom the specialist press has been describing for several years as a plague victim. It also happens that an art center has to defend itself by arming itself day and night against a radicalized religious crowd wanting to raze the institution, without the power lifting a finger to defend a freedom of creation facing physicaly danger, thus the well documented pressure and acts of violence against Dakar's Raw Material Art Center from the islamist community and particularily from the islamic NGO Jamra en 2014.
In this context of economic, social and even sometimes physical fears, self-censorship is naturally the rule most often.
CENSORS: SUE WILLIAMSON
The PICKAMINNIE - Sue Williamson case is particularly representative of this climate of fear: it is a case of a woke South African female artist, Sue Williamson, attempting to censor another, Tracey Rose. Why? According to Tracey Rose, a black artist, Sue Williamson, a white artist, acts out of fear that the work concerned will portray her as a white appropriationist practicing Black Face. Such a perception by the South African public could indeed make this apostle of the denunciation of aparteid a victim of cancel culture.
How events unfolded and why:
Sue Williamson wrote to Tracey Rose on Dec 19, 2019 (we were able to access the email): "Do not show or sell this work any longer, or include it in any further publication" (The work had already been exhibited at Art Basel Miami in 2014). This happened eventhough Williamson had collaborated to the work under Tracey Rose's direction, and had authorised the work to be exhibited and sold, but probably without understanding its meaning and perhaps, as she claims, ignoring its title. Anyway Tracey Rose refused to censor herself.
Later on she has wanted to show this work at Zeitz Mocaa on the occasion of her retrospective in the famous South African museum. The latter supported her decision even though it seems that Williamson also asked the museum to remove the work from the show (the museum will neither confirm nor deny).
The PICKAMINNIE character as Tracey Rose describes it, "is a pregnant school girl who forms part of a slew of dysmorphic characters who are the audience members of Plato’s Cave in an extended version of The Cunt Show in the exhibition Plantation Lullabies, the title taken from Me’Shell NdegeOcello’s 1993 album. On this photograph PICKAMINNIE is played by Sue Williamson in blackface, a reference to the derogatory noun for a small black child, and the racist, white supremacist Walt Disney’s blackface characters of Minnie and Mickey Mouse. The Cunt Show is a scathing attack on white feminism, Elizabeth Sackler [of the opioid empire] and the hypocrisy of the exhibition “Global Feminisms” sponsored by The Elizabeth A. Sackler Centre for Feminist Art at The Brooklyn Museum where The Cunt Show was first performed under the title The Cant Show for the conference and Artist’s talks in 2007."
Explaining her refusal to destroy this work, Tracey Rose says: "It still forms a contingent of white South African artists who have been using black people's bodies and faces and stories in their art. At what point is it oportunistic, is it empathetic or sympathetic? They speak about the narrative of black opression, but they NEVER call up white oppresors, which is really strange that it is easier for them to mope the kind of poverty and oppressive porn of the black experience, yet they are not willing to call out the white suppremacist environnement that they are of part of and they all benefit, they live with it, they never call that up. That's the problem".