A feature on an artist in the public eye
Involved in between 25 and 30 projects at any one time - from conceiving new large-scale installations to expanding on old ones; from carving wood to collecting handfuls of sand from "important sites" around the country; from writing poetry to "rescuing" words for one of his dictionaries - Willem Boshoff is an artist in ceaseless intellectual and creative motion. His hunger for obscure pieces of knowledge, for new words in almost forgotten languages, is insatiable. His delight is to work with this information and present it to the world in tangible form, textually or sculpturally, generally embodying a strong moral message. He is the predikant who questions the teachings of the bible, the teacher who desires that his students unravel his puzzles, the umfundisi for whom knowledge is powerful but always elusive.
"I have a head full of uncertainty. I don't know where I am with anything - but I think that is a kind of certainty in itself. I spend eight hours a day on the computer, having an orgy with language. I hate books and I love books. Books can be prisons. Once something is written, it's written, and it can become dogma. But a book can contain wonderful things - things you will only see if you take it off the shelf and open it. A book is conceptual until you open it. In art, those things are in your face. I work with the idea of knowledge in a package: how we keep knowledge, package it, store it - through books, the computer, oral tradition; how we process it and manipulate it through art and how we can share it, or publish it."
In August, Boshoff will open at the new Millennium II Gallery in Johannesburg in a joint show with Andrew Munnik entitled 'Cracked Up to Be'. Boshoff will show two new pieces, Ostrakon and Belemnoid. Ostrakon - the title is the Greek word for a shard of pottery - is a reflection by Boshoff on the Boer War and its long-term effects: it was the generation of Boer children who survived the British concentration camps, where 22 000 of their brothers and sisters died of illness and malnutrition, who came into power in 1948 and became the architects of apartheid. Almost 540 sharp shards of tiles will have white glossy paper printed in "colonial" blue adhered to the surface; the printed text will be the names of the prime ministers, state presidents and cabinet ministers from 1900 to 1994 (all white). These will lie scattered on the floor. A container for the shards will also be on the floor - a rosewood ballot box with a slit in the lid. The second piece, Belemnoid - "Belemnos in Greek is like a javelin" - will provide a visual and intellectual counterpoint to the first. The flat white shards of Ostrakon with its theme of the institutionalised and planned violence of the Nationalist state will be contrasted with an installation of elongated "javelins" in black and white marble. Boshoff explains that the shape is derived from fragmented bones found in the Karoo which people believed to be thunderbolts hurled from the sky - a punishment from the gods.
Boshoff's work can also be seen in Venice - he is one of the two South African artists on 'Authentic/Ex-centric: Africa in and out of Africa', an exhibition of work by artists from Africa and the diaspora mounted at the Venice Biennale. His piece, Panifice, which means "making bread", consists of 56 slightly larger than lifesize "loaves" of pink granite, on highly polished and sandblasted bread boards of black granite ("the idea came from the medium - granite is the most difficult material to work with"). Boshoff has installed his loaves in a courtyard of the Conservatorio di Musica, in "two fields of landmines that one might fall over - or two pages in a book and you walk through the centre". The phrase sandblasted on the boards refers obliquely to the difficulties in getting Europe to accept Africa as part of the 'Plateau of Humankind', the overall theme of the Biennale, and asks chidingly, in 56 languages, "What man is there among you who, if your son asks for a loaf of bread, would give him a stone". For more on Panifice, read Nic Dawes' review of 'Authentic/Ex-centric'.
Earlier this year, at Den Frie Udstillings in Copenhagen, Boshoff exhibited The Writing on the Sand, the piece first shown on last year's Havana Biennale, which paid homage to the languages newly recognised by the post-1994 South African state, which has 11 official languages. "These indigenous tongues have been spoken for hundreds of years, but were marginalised and disenfranchised under European rule," says Boshoff. Although they now have official status, Boshoff believes the languages are still under siege and could become extinct. "I write in the sand," says the artist, "because it is an unstable medium and is easily disturbed." In attempting to subvert the dominance of English with his words inscribed in sand, Boshoff has written a dictionary consisting of abstruse English words - like "pognology", the study of beards, and "bruxism", the tendency to grind teeth. It is these odd words and their translations into the other languages that lie on the floor. Boshoff imagines a situation where the Zulu speaker, for instance, has to help the English speaker translate the work.
In a second piece using sand or earth, Boshoff recently completed Umhlabathi, a piece for the Mpumulanga parliamentary buildings in Nelspruit. In a large medicine chest, 200 glass containers, the size and style of the bottoms of old preserving jars, each labelled, hold handfuls of sand gathered by Boshoff from important sites around the country - for instance, the spot where Samora Machel's plane crashed, and the mouth of the Karoo burrow of an aardvaark (an important animal in African mythology).
And before that:
In 2000, Boshoff showed at the White Box Gallery in Chelsea, New York, on an exhibition entitled 'Translation/Seduction/Displacement', exhibiting early work: examples of KykAfrikaans (translated loosely as "Afrikaans to be looked at"), a series of "concrete poems" written between 1977 and 1980. "You can hear with the eyes but not see with the ears," said the artist. In the same year, Boshoff's Bangboek ("book of being frightened") was shown as part of an exhibition of war memories of African artists, held at MUKHA (Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen) in Antwerp, Belgium. Boshoff was jailed for his refusal to carry arms in the South African Defence Force, and devised a minute code writing in which to keep diaries. It is these pages which make up Bangboek.
Boshoff is one of the artists commissioned to do special work for the artistic refurbishment of South Africa House, situated on one side of London's Trafalgar Square. As part of a historic monument, the existing artwork may not be removed, so the artists will work on glass screens set in front of the old works. Boshoff will call his piece Rain People. The space allocated to him covers three paintings by landscape artist Gwelo Goodman. "They are rather innocent landscapes - here and there a blue gum, no houses, no people. I don't want to belittle Gwelo Goodman. I wanted to make something that interacts." Boshoff has decided to have double sheets of glass in front of the pictures, and to sandblast words, the names of ordinary South Africans - "Zuma or Mbeki or Mandela or Botha or Williamson" - on both sides of each sheet. As one walks past, the words will shift and scumble. The idea is to create the feeling of rain. The landscape has been rained on and is no longer barren.
And after that:
"I have to finish three more sections of the Blind Alphabet by December - D, E and F. They have been sold to a collector." Blind Alphabet ABC first made its appearance at the 1st Johannesburg Biennale (1995). As in The Writing on the Sand the dominant English speaker has to play second fiddle to the speaker of African languages, so here the sighted art viewer is less informed than the blind. A series of covered pedestal containers hold wooden carvings. The lid on each pedestal carries a description of the contents, a sculptural conception of an obscure English word - but the description is in Braille. At the Biennale, it was only the blind guides who were entitled to lift the lids and talk about the work. At other times, the work had to be viewed through the mesh sides of the pedestal.
Of course, that is only one of many things Boshoff has to do by December. He is also searching for a suitable venue in London for a follow-up to Ostrakon, in which he will link the monarchy to the Boer War, and there are numerous other projects in fermentation.
Born 1951, in Vereeniging, South Africa. Lives and works in Johannesburg.
Address: 47 King Edward Street, Kensington, Johannesburg 2094, South Africa
Primarily language/text-related art, often prepared over long periods of time on the computer, and executed in a social context. Large installations, visual poetry, concrete poetry, sculpture andc formerly painting and the graphic arts. Uses wood, objets trouvé, mixed media and various graphic media.
Main references: dictionaries, botanical gardens, medieval and early music, avant-garde music. Language systems that stonewall or subvert the traditional gallery practice to the advantage of disenfranchised social groups or vulnerable ecological issues.
University of South Africa; Billiton, Johannesburg; Technikon Witwatersrand; South African National Gallery, Cape Town; Johannesburg Art Gallery; University of the Witwatersrand; King George VI Gallery, Port Elizabeth; Durban Art Gallery; Sandton Municipal Collection, Johannesburg; Jack Ginsberg Collection of Book Arts, Johannesburg; Pierre Lombard Collection of Contemporary South African Art; David Krut Collection of Fine Art, Johannesburg; Ruth and Marvin Sackner Archives of Concrete and Visual Poetry, Miami; Robert Loder Collection of International Art, London; ARTSENSE, a group that promotes art among the blind, Birmingham, UK; Sammlung der Städtishe Galerie, Göppingen, Germany; MTN Phone Company Corporate Collection, Johannesburg; Sanlam Corporate Collection, Cape Town, Randse Afrikaanse Universiteit.