Collection 1970s–Present

Sue Williamson. For Thirty Years Next to His Heart. 1990 211

Forty-nine photocopies in artist-designed frames, overall (approx.): 72 x 103" (182.9 x 261.6 cm). Gift of Barbara Jakobson. © 2023 Sue Williamson

Artist, Sue Williamson: My name is Sue Williamson. I'm an artist based in Capetown. You're looking at 49 pages of a passbook that a worker, his name was Ngithando John Ngesi, had to carry with him at all times when he was outside on the street or working or anywhere in public, because if he was stopped by the police and he didn't have it, he could be immediately arrested.

Right at the top of the left-hand side, you'll see Ngesi's hand pulling his passport out of his pocket. And then it opens on the first page and you read it, down like film strips. And every now and again something will happen--perhaps a policeman's hand will come in or there'll be a rubber stamp. So you get the sense of time passing telling the story of his life through his passbook.

The title of it, For 30 Years Next to his Heart, was because something that you hold next to your heart normally is something that's very dear and very precious to you. But the thing that he had next to his heart was his hated passbook. It was very kind of him to lend it to me. It was only when I asked him that he actually felt able to separate himself from this object of terror.

This was a law from 1952 until 1986. So in a sense, what you're looking at is the total symbol of apartheid, the attempt of the nationalist apartheid government to keep black people in subjugation. They made them strangers in the country of their own birth.

Very often, in many traumatized societies, the people who've actually gone through the process of being oppressed don't want to talk about it to their children. but if you don't understand what previous generations have gone through, you don't really understand the history of your own country.