SMAC Gallery, Cape Town
12.12.2015 – 06.02.2016
Boshoff has been reaping a whirlwind media storm in the wake of the 2015 Venice Biennale and although Racist in South Africa is not in this show, it warrants mentioning as it’s bitter aftertaste lingers. The work, a manifesto of Boshoff’s gripes engraved into aluminium, dates back to pre-twittergate 2011.
My primary criticism of Racist in South Africa is that it makes a number of unverifiable assertions, but what really riled viewers was the implicit biases contained in the work. As a kind of racism litmus test I read the contents for the work to a few friends, and asked if they could guess the demographic of the artist. Unsurprisingly, all got it right first time. Boshoff gives himself and his privileged priorities away by raising issues from his perch atop Maslow’s hierarchy.
His claim that he is not a racist misunderstands the way racism operates in South Africa, where we often understand a racial undertone through proxies and euphemisms. Sometimes it’s even more intuitive than needing specific ciphers. Sometimes all you need to do is prioritize farm murders and tourism above the kind of problems that an institutionally oppressed, impoverished black person might worry about or express your sympathy for the poor masses that suffer at arms length.
That said, some of his concerns are perfectly valid, for example no-one begrudges him his protectiveness over his children but it’s an opportunity cost for us to have to comb through Boshoff’s sentiments and sort them into little piles labeled ‘offensive,’ ‘legitimate,’ ‘maybe later when we have less pressing issues’ and ‘does that even happen here?’
And here I experience a twinge of sadness. I’m having the dawning realization that my high school art heroes are only human and never quite beyond reproach. I remember art theory lessons in which Boshoff was lauded as a kind of ‘hermit/guru’ (the kung-fu movie trope) whose ways we should emulate if only we could penetrate the mystique, muster his (early) fervent religiosity or almost die of heavy metal poisoning.
I’m glad that for ‘Reap the Whirlwind’, at SMAC in Woodstock, he’s back to fastidiously trawling the archives and compiling lexicons. In this respect his artistic merit is evident and tackling the show is like attempting a complex puzzle – not unlike a crossword that’s been filled in and you get to guess the clues.
In his work Reap the Whirlwind, he makes a fore boding forecast. The work shows a deluge of sickles backed by a painterly sandstorm and contains the message that we are due to reap a disastrous harvest if object-worship is placed above concerns for human well-being.
The title is taken from a Bible verse from the book of Hosea in which God chides the Israelites for idolatry. God’s surreal object-lesson speaks to the nature of cause and effect but it also alludes to the need for economic redress or at least to the communist backlash that is “the world kicking back” at oily consumerism. The work shows divine justice waiting for its subject.
In this regard Boshoff may be an auger of popular sentiment as the appropriation of populist rhetoric grows ever more prevalent (a local example is the #feesmustfall and #rhodesmustfall protest movements).
However, Reap the Whirlwind triggers my generic skepticism regarding work that criticises materialism, idolatry and consumerism and then sells as a luxury item for big money. Obviously I think the artist deserves to be paid well for his labour of academic and aesthetic value – and to be clear, I don’t think he’s being a hypocrite here – but his necessity in doing so for a class of obscenely wealthy people decorating their sumptuous villas seems like an irony that would irk Boshoff as much as it does me.
Boshoff is enduringly fascinated by linguistics and many of the pieces in ‘Reap the Whirlwind‘ are text based and punny (see Time to Kill). The most noteworthy of these is Word Woes, a 50 x 10 foot long installation of hand-made alphabet bricks. Aside from its English meaning, the title roughly translates to ‘become angry’ in Afrikaans and sets the tone for his frustrations with the notion of English as the universal Language. Boshoff sourced the bricks from a Richmond man named Trevor who churns his clay using a blinkered donkey.
Each of the words built into the wall have a distinct Afrikaans and English meaning. These meanings interplay – an inside joke to anyone with an understanding of both languages. Boshoff seems to find sneaky pleasure when erudite (esp. English) monolinguals come up against his literal language barrier. He remarks that there is space for a challenge to the English linguistic monopoly but ultimately the work is only unlocked to those who understand both English and Afrikaans; a statement about how one loses out when experiencing the world through a single, narrow language
There is also a sense that Boshoff is fighting to preserve Afrikaans, an underdog language, and to highlight the frustrations of (for example) any child who does not have English as his or her mother tongue. There is immense pressure to learn English and not learning it creates a tangible ceiling… even having an undesirable accent can hamper one’s progress in our Anglocentric society. Perhaps he has a legitimate academic objection to the way Afrikaans is lambasted for being ‘the language of the oppressor’ when English, with its divisive colonial roots, was an oppressor just a little further back in history.
In any case, on the question of education, Boshoff emphasises the need to accommodate students’ in their quest for knowledge even if that means universities instruct in English – though I suspect in his ideal world everyone would learn all the languages.
My feeling is that Willem Boshoff is controversial but well-meaning, a druid-like figure creating puzzles out of alphabet soup, still relevant and appropriate on the issue of language. However, although his white, South African insecurities are real, in terms of priorities they take up valuable talking-space necessary on that front for other voices.