Sue Williamson’s Wax in the City

This piece appeared in a catalogue for the Sasol Wax Art Awards 2007

Sue Williamson is an insightful and prolific artist, whose work touches on many areas that contemporary art practise tends to overlook.  Her production, which focusses on social issues and narratives, tells the unnoticed stories in a collaborative process with the subjects, often using documentary styling.  Although often working photography and video, the work never falls into the realm of pure documentary, a strong artistic vision is always present.  She has made art that deals with timely and relevant matters, for example female apartheid activists in A Few South Africans, 1984, the TRC in Truth Games, 1998, Aids in From the Inside, 2002, immigrants in Better Lives, 2003, and recently race integration in Comfort Zones, 2007.  Her work has been exhibited all over the world, and resides in numerous collections and galleries. Later this year she will be premiering a video, W.A.S.H, at the Museum of African Art in Washington, as a 2007 fellow of the Smithsonian Institute.  Sue Williamson is also active in other roles, being the founder of the online magazine ArtThrob.co.za in 1999, which has since then become one of the most valued resources for contemporary South African artists countrywide and internationally. She is the producer of two books on South African art, Art in South Africa: the Future Present (co-authored with Ashraf Jamal) and Resistance Art in South Africa. She has also been an active cultural worker, being one of the founders of Public Eye, an organisation for facilitating public art projects such as Soft Serve, a largescale art party in  the South African National Gallery in 1999.

For the piece for the Sasol Wax Art Awards, Sue Williamson chose a different approach to wax, bringing her unique vision to the project.  She produced a video which looked at the culture of beauty salon waxing, interviewing both women who undergo waxing as well as the practitioners.   The piece, although dealing with more light-hearted grist than usual and being decidedly humorous, still ties in strongly with Sue Williamson’s practice, following the stories of her subjects, using waxing as a catalyst.  In conversation with Sue Williamson, she speaks of some of her motivations for producing the work.

Your approach to wax is rather different, being far more conceptual than physical.  What motivated you to work in this manner?   How did you become interested in the process of salon waxing?  What process did you go through to conceptualize a work of this nature?

Well, when you start with the idea of doing something around wax, various possibilities present themselves. But I like working with people’s stories, and since I knew little about salon waxing and why it attracts such devotees to what is quite a painful ritual, I decided to explore that.

Much of the video work uses conversations and interviews.  How did you, considering it is such a private world, gain access?  What did you do to gain the confidence of your subjects?

Amongst women, it is not such a private world. Asking brings answers. But still, the intimate conversations that took place at the Long Street Turkish Baths and in various beauty salons were not exactly the kind which would happen around a dinner table. In order for my subjects to feel free to say anything they wish, I promise I will not use anything which might embarrass them later.

Are the relationships you develop significant?

Sometimes. And after working on a good project together, there is always a certain bond afterwards.

Is the process or history of waxing an important element in the video, or is the focus on the stories and personalities that emerge?

The video does not go into the history of waxing, it’s not intended to be in any way a documentary, but different kinds of wax and waxing processes are shown in a fairly abstract kind of way. And reactions. Little grimaces of pain. Reddened skin. But mostly the focus is on the women and their stories.

The waxing salon, and the process of hair removal, open ups many engaging themes, the most obvious being the pursuit of beauty.  I’m interested in how this theme ties in with other ideas, such as ritual, religion, gender, sexuality.  Could you elaborate on how you explored these themes in the video?

Ritual, religion, sexuality all come into it. Muslim women need to be hairless so that in the ritual process of washing, the water is next to the skin. And the women tell stories of how they will have everything off for a new man. Or after a divorce comes through. A kind of ritual cleansing and smoothing. A return to girlhood.

What technically went into making the video?  Do you shoot it yourself? What equipment do you use?  How do you edit the films?  What is your working process?

I I shot all the footage myself on my SONY HDV Handycam, and edited it in Final Cut Pro on my Power Book G4. Deciding to do a two channel projection of a project of this kind, where all the action is in the conversations and it was only me and one camera made editing quite tricky Clare van Zyl of Monkey Films was tremendously helpful in supporting the project with the logistical services of Monkey in setting up shoots and getting permissions. Having a budget from Sasol to make the work meant all the participants received a fee. Both videos were put onto flashcards for synchronised projection. The Goodman Gallery will lend projectors and Michael Stevenson Contemporary will lend the two flashcard players needed.. 

My working process in general is to have an idea, start somewhere, and see where that goes. So in this case, the initial idea was to talk to therapists, take closeups of the waxing process, and do a shoot with four women in the sauna at the Long Street Baths, a favourite refuge of mine. And do a two channel projection, which I’d never attempted before.

There was a bad moment when the steam from the steam room at the baths stopped the camera from working just as I started shooting, but it recovered after an hour.

Sue Williamson’s approach to wax, looking at salon waxing and the women involved with it, as opposed to using wax to create an object, is a significant part of the way she operates. Williamson’s work is seldom object-based, the narratives of real people are told best through other means.  Her work attains a high level of technical excellence and innovation, and she brings this experience into the video.  Using two channels, a wide format and natural camera-work she allows the viewer to feel present during the conversations and by removing this distance we feel comfortable observing and listening.  Titled Wax and the City, a play on the name of a popular TV serial which follows the friendships and sex lives of four women, she uses waxing as an anchor point to tell the stories of women who are involved with the material.  Partly taking part with four friends in a steam-room and partly with two beauty therapists in a salon, the women converse casually and closely and with a refreshing candour. These scenes are mixed in with shots of legs, armpits, eyebrows, bubbling wax, application tools and the sounds of unwanted hair parting with skin.  Experiencing it from this perspective one gets a feeling for how waxing has facilitated relationships, between friends,  between strangers, and become a part of these women’s lives. The stories revealed are funny, with a subtle mix of embarrassment, bravado, intimate exchange and the sharing of private moments. Some tell the tales of their first time getting a Brazilian, the pain and the rewards, others speak of difficult customers and techniques.  The humour of these situations draws the viewer into the narratives, allowing the stories to play out and giving the audience access to an unseen, or at least unspoken, world.

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