Weapons of a ‘linguistic terrorist’

By Time of article published Oct 21, 2011

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YOU can scare Willem Boshoff with some things, but not big words and not bird poop.

The self-confessed “linguistic terrorist” says art begins with a way of seeing – even when you’re looking at excrement. In Boshoff’s way of seeing and his creative play, everything – from the A to Z in two killer volumes of Webster’s to the language in cloud formations, and what can be divined in ancient rock art runes – is transformed into things at home in an art gallery.

Boshoff’s Setups and Upsets exhibition is on at the University of Johannesburg’s FADA Gallery. It’s the university’s annual alumnus exhibition. Boshoff was a student at the Witwatersrand Technikon. He also lectured at the old Tech, becoming head of the fine art department in 1984.

That year he also moved into his home in Kensington. The house cleaves to one of the suburb’s many slopes. Stairs lead to his workshop where for the last two decades he’s literally carved out a name for himself as a conceptual artist and sculptor.

“I’m finishing 10 pieces for an exhibition in Italy,” says Boshoff stepping through wood shavings towards his latest Zebrano wood creation.

His sure sculptor’s hand rests on the curves of a segmented dome waiting for polishing and finishing touches. Boshoff isn’t quite satisfied. He also has a lament.

“In a 100 years there will be very little wood left for art. All the good pieces are chopped up for bad furniture and expensive hotels, but we work with what we’ve got,” he says.

More stairs lead to the house. There are old typewriters, works by Tom Kgope and in the kitchen a wooden sculpture he created, back home from an exhibition. Topped with glass, it’s ready to receive a cup of tea.

“It’s just a table,” shrugs Boshoff with a smile. Only it’s not. Boshoff has coaxed out the narratives in wood grain since he decided he was going to be a sculptor when he was just a Vanderbijl Park schoolboy.

His stories also come from books. In his library are books that hold texts that inspire. Words hold their own roots and origins. They also have their own curious bastardisations, evolutions and, sometimes even, demise. Working in English is also Boshoff’s simultaneous middle-finger and salute to the language.

His piece, Negotiating the English Labyrinth, is a maze formed by a 3D crossword, filled in with green pen. It’s full of the English that confuses. English is not Boshoff’s first language – but big words don’t scare him.

“Years ago I would spend up to eight hours a night learning all the difficult words that people like philosophy and English professors used so that no one could understand them. They were the type of people who think those who don’t understand English or speak it with an accent are stupid,” says Boshoff.

Boshoff got himself into “linguistic shape”. Then language became his art, also his creative weapon – inverting and reversing meanings and labels.

“I was able to upstage the English intelligentsia. It was not to belittle them but to show them the fact of life that those you think are defunct can actual lead you,” says Boshoff.

It’s also a sense of fun that Boshoff has with his work. It comes through in the way he teaches, still sitting in as external examiner for many universities and when he talks to the public, walking them through his exhibited works.

He’s a celebration, says Rosalind Cleaver, exhibition curator. “As a conceptual artist Willem is extraordinary. What he expresses stands for a bigger picture,” says Cleaver.

Cleaver says the UJ exhibition represents Boshoff’s many facets. It’s also a reflection of the timeline of his personal artistic journey.

“He’s a sponge; scaffolding that holds all the information around him,” she says.

Boshoff admit thats he’s always collecting ideas, constantly working in his head; not able to say no. Next up he off to Washington for a Smithsonian fellowship and preparing for an exhibition in France.

Setups and Upsets includes his silkscreen works from 1972. There are his cloud pictures also his Skatkissie – a wooden jewellery box that has found its way back to him.

He sold it during the dips after a divorce. It’s a piece titled for the heartache of treasures lost.

See the Druid Walks. One consists of images of elm trees lost to disease: the hurt and abuse of Boshoff’s beloved trees is seen in patterns and texture. There’s also his 9/11 tribute as seen from his flat in Tribeca, New York. The photos as slideshow are symbols where the Twin Towers emerge, crosses marking the impact zones, buildings reflected in mirrored facades showing a nation fragmented and sticky tape in weird places like an impossible mender.

It’s the way Boshoff sees things and his audience is richer for it.

l Setups and Upsets is on at FADA, Bunting Road campus, until Saturday at 4pm.

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