The story of 300 years of slavery in 2,000-odd bottles

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Biennale work depicts journey of slaves to and from Africa

Sue Williamson travelled all the way from South Africa to India to display two installations that shed light on the neglected histories of her country and draw parallels with the city hosting the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

The 77-year-old artist’s ‘Messages from the Atlantic Passage’ at Aspinwall House is based on records on 300 years of slavery from the 16th century. The work has five fishing nets, filled with glass bottles containing traces of earth and suspended from the ceiling. Each of the 2,000-odd bottles is inscribed with a slave’s name.

Ms. Williamson, who was born in England and migrated to Cape Town in 1948, said the work was inspired by voyages undertaken by slave ships from Africa to the Americas in the 19th century.

The five nets hang atop a wooden base that is inscribed with the details of the journey, including chilling lists of headcount at departure and arrival.

Sue’s second work is more recent. ‘One Hundred and Nineteen Deeds of Sale’ is a result of her visit to Kochi last year, when she was struck by the similarities in the colonial histories of Kochi and Cape Town. In South Africa, she found transaction records from the Cape Town Deeds Office that account the 17th century enslavement of Indians, many of them Keralites, who were bought to Africa by the Dutch East India Company.

Williamson sourced shirts worn by the working class and wrote on them the names given to the slaves by their masters and other details. She then dipped the T-shirts in the muddy water around the Cape Town Castle, a site of enslavement, to symbolise the slaves’ struggle. During Biennale, the garments are washed at a public laundry frequented by Dutch officers in the colonial era and hung out to dry at the Aspinwall House here.

“It is like an act of memorialisation,” the artist said.

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