Willem Boshoff Javett Art Centre Pretoria 2021/2

Down the rabbit hole of “Word Woes

Writing about curator Hélène Smuts’ walkabout of Willem Boshoff’s exhibition Word Woes at the Javett Art Centre in late 2021 makes me feel like Alice disappearing down the rabbit hole. This not in the original sense of some surreal psychedelic experience – old Lewis knew a thing or two – but rather in the more recent information-age-sense of getting so engrossed in something that one thing leads to another until there is a veritable warren of ideas which keep digging more tunnels and keep breeding and reproducing baby ideas ….. aaggh! I AM in Lewis’ surreal world.  But that’s what Willem Boshoff’s work does to one. 

Javett Art Centre with Touch Wood 2014 (Jacaranda wood) in the foreground.  The large letters of the word  T O U C H are exhibited on the gallery floor.

But back to the Javett Centre (that was the easy part),  and to Hélène Smuts, the curator. Hélène has a passion, an energy, a range of knowledge, and an ability to communicate and enthuse which is astounding. Google her and you will see that curating is but one string in her Amazonian bow. She is also a writer, publisher, film producer, arts educator, curriculum designer (she has developed extensive teacher training programmes in rural areas using traditional beadwork patterns to teach maths), and more besides.

Michael Godby and Patricia Davison and curator and guide Hélène Smuts with her Sophie Mahlangu beaded walking stick, in front of Boshoff’s Psephos (South 32 Collection).  Made in 1994-1995, the nine glass boxes contain pebbles collected from each of the newly designated nine provinces of the post-democratic South Africa. The ancient Greeks put small pebbles called psephon into jars to register their votes. The pebbles here (all geographically specific) are arranged in the sign of the voter’s cross in the recent first democratic elections in South Africa.

Hélène expresses part of her curatorial philosophy:  “I believe a curator is essentially a translator, who engages with an artist through their work and then makes their art accessible and relevant to a public audience.”  And she certainly did this for us in our 3-hour walk and talk through the 5- decade survey exhibition. 

Who is Willem Boshoff?

Willem Boshoff Photo by Jurgen Marx

Curator and artist mirror each other in having diverse areas of expertise: Boshoff is an educator (first a high school teacher, then lecturer and Head of Art Department at the Wits Tech and now Senior Professor in the Department of Fine Arts, University of the Free State); antiquarion and collector of rare objects; dendrologist and Druid; a carpenter, sculptor,  conceptual artist, protest artist; linguistic terrorist, wordsmith, writer of dictionaries, and code maker; a Comrades silver medalist. 

Hélène in her introduction to our walkabout summarized 3 key issues underpinning Boshoff’s work:  the conceptual nature of his art;  his works as protest;  and that much of his work with its word play, coding and spatial puzzles deals with concepts of locking and unlocking meaning. 

Word Woes 2014 etching 137 X 110cm  In preparing the etching plate, the words had to be engraved in reversed type so that they might print out normally.

Word Woes, (from which the exhibition takes its title) embodies these ideas. The artist uses words which on one level can easily be read. However, all the words are both English and Afrikaans words and have different meanings in each language. Read in English, “Word Woes” laments the problematics of language whereas in Afrikaans the implication is to “let go” and “go wild’; even: “get angry”.  Language has the power to privilege and exclude. As an English speaker with little knowledge of Afrikaans, the viewer would be excluded from the full meaning of this work. Given Boshoff’s fascination, indeed obsession, with language, it also comes as no surprise that he is a compulsive cross-worder. 

Blind Alphabet, an ongoing work  

Blind Alphabet, a three-dimensional dictionary, is one of Boshoff’s most ambitious and best known works.  Started in 1991 it combines his meticulous craftmanship and love of woodwork, his fascination with obscure words and language games, his obsessive nature; and his interest in the exclusionary nature of language.  During the process of compiling a dictionary for blind people, Boshoff found 1000s of complex and obscure words in dictionaries, words which describe structure, shape and texture. For example apopetalous means to have distinct or separate petals. He carved exquisitely beautiful wooden objects which helped describe and explain the word through touch and feel. Each object is placed in a box with a steel lid and on each lid the word is identified in braille with a text explaining the meaning of the word.  Only blind people can read the braille and are allowed to lift the lid and handle the artworks. Sighted visitors are therefore excluded from accessing the artwork.  The scale and magnitude of this artwork is extraordinary. There are over 94 sculptures in boxes for the letter A alone (now in the Oliewenhuis Art Museum in Bloemfontein). Blind alphabet B (from babery to begeminate) – 90 sculptures in boxes – of which 30 are in the MTN collection and Blind Alphabet C (from Coculliferous to Cymbiform) (154 sculptures in boxes), of which 77 were shown at the 1996 Sao Paolo Biennale. Clearly this is an ongoing project. The letter L (From the Gervanne and Matthias Leridon Collection) is exhibited for the first time on Word Woes, along with 30 letter Fs (from the Goodman Collection) and 15 Gs and Hs. 

Blind Alphabet letter L 2021 Courtesy Hélène Smuts
Blind students from UFS experiencing objects for words beginning with A

Subversive opinions encoded: Bangbroek 1978-1981 

Boshoff, a pacifist, was required to attend compulsory military camps. In his diary he wrote his subversive views on the South African military which he then translated into encoded form as seen below.  The humorous punning of Bangbroek (Afrikaans for scaredy-pants) and Bang Boek (the book that is scared), belie the serious critique underlying this work. 

Bangboek 1978-81 ink, paper, masonite 140 X 153 cm. South 32 collection

And while this might mean very little in reproduction, some sense of the obsessive, meticulous and breathtaking detail of this work can be seen in the close-up below. 

Two pages of the 48 page text
Foreground: Ostrakon 2003 comprising 534 ceramic tiles with names of South African political figures (an ostrakon is a piece of broken pottery used by voters in Ancient Greece);  on the wall behind Blue reads as a flattish plane with raised letters. But the close-up below, shows it is made of thousands of folded pieces of paper and board, each cut and placed by the artist during long nights of wakefulness with chronic pain.  Back left Bull, Triumph of Capitalism 2011 paper collage, acacia thorns.
This is what Blue looks like from close-up

Unlocking spatial puzzles to reveal cities 

Kubus closed 1976-1982 aluminium cotton linen contact adhesive 5 x 5 x 5cm

The small sculpture Kubus (Cube) could sit in the palm of a hand.  When the 6 sides are unfolded, a small city is revealed as below. The cube does not unfold into the expected cross shape but rather in the shape of steps.  Kubus has to be unfolded and folded in the correct sequence otherwise it will not open and close. This is deliberate as Boshoff wanted the interlocking shapes to function like a combination lock. He has written in detail about his process of constructing this intricate little city.  


Kubus when opened
City Book 2006 (like Kubus) unfolds into a small city. (15 X 61 X 24 cm when open) It is no coincidence that this work, carved out of various woods, is owned by Jack Ginsberg, the artist’s book collector


All Boshoff’s works mesmerize in their detail, craftsmanship, esotericism, conceptual complexity and as signifiers of conspicuous labour, but none more so than 370 days. It would take me longer than 370 days to get out of the rabbit hole if I was to do justice to the creative process, physical making and layerings of meanings and references encoded in this work.  Boshoff details this “autobiographical survey of an introspective, meditative lifestyle” on his website. It involves 370 tree species, 18 months of planning, 370 days of making, a panel a day (wherever he was – in a foreign city, on a plane), specific tasks (related to duty, sacrifice and pleasure), to be completed according to a set schedule every day. Boshoff’s extraordinary focus, discipline and obsession in all areas of activity is summed up here:

 The work of making 370 DAY PROJECT was mentally and physically demanding, because it progressed slowly and required a great deal of thought. To counter the mental exhaustion and also to make myself sufficiently fit to keep up the pace of the project while coping with my normal duties, I would jog 32 kilometres daily, running early in the morning and late in the afternoon. This exercise regime, coupled with the discipline required for 370 DAY PROJECT, enabled me to win a silver medal in the 87-kilometre Comrades Marathon that year.

The first 10 days of the 370 DAY PROJECT 12 to 21 September 1982. Photo Bob Cnoops for Exhibition “Willem Boshoff Word Forms and Language Shapes” at the Standard Bank in 2007 curated by Warren Siebrits. Each day is divided into two.
Glass cases at Word Woes displaying the 370 DAY PROJECT at the Javett Art Centre
Wooden cabinet containing 370 hand carved blocks, carving chips and secret diaries. Photo Bob Cnoops for Exhibition “Willem Boshoff Word Forms and Language Shapes” at the Standard Bank in 2007 curated by Warren Siebrits.

And NOW do you understand what I mean by a rabbit hole!  

Word Woes is on until 27th March 2022 at the Javett Art Centre, Pretoria.  Open times: 10 am to 5pm  Tuesday to Sunday. The entry price is hefty at R150 per adult; R75 for pensioners and under 18 R50. Be warned there is no museum café but Harrie’s pancakes is in nearby in Eastwood Street. 


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