WILLEM BOSHOFF: THE WORD ACCORDING TO BIG DRUID, knowing through seeing…

‘It is only through seeing that one can know: Druids like artists must see in order to know. It is through art that one learns first to look and then to see. It is important to recognise that it is only once you can see that you can know. And it is by truly seeing that you can think intuitively. I have found the words for this knowing, Gnosis or Gnostic.’ Willem Boshoff, 9 July 2009

Willem Boshoff, Garden of Words III, 2006/9 (Source Goodman Gallery)

Occasionally one recognises the weight of a moment and you know that you are experiencing something extraordinary. One such instance for me was when South African artist Willem Boshoff addressed a handful of art enthusiasts as part of a corporations’ art education programme.

Boshoff’s tangible presence seemed to dwarf the meeting room. He was clearly in the moment yet it is unclear whether he is entirely of this realm or of another Zeitgeist. Does the heavily bearded man[1], with the deep ‘knowing’ eyes encapsulate prehistoric man, the Druids or the early Dutch settlers to South Africa, or something of all of these personae, as he slumps his broad shoulders over his large frame?  As a self-proclaimed Druid, his path to self-realisation has been a long and arduous one.

In the calm and measured voice of an oracle he took his awestruck audience with him on his journey of religion, an obsessive search to locate the quintessential meaning of his life, of words, the human experience, his urge to collect things and his deep- seated interest in and bond with the natural world. These obsessions have been translated into a commendable body of artworks shown at home in South Africa and in major international art centres, not to mention the series of extraordinary dictionaries he has published.

Boshoff has always been driven to work excessively hard. Fierce ambition and devout religion characterised his early years. In his twenties he spread God’s word as a street preacher, taught and practiced as an artist and wrote an anthology of poetry.  He refused to exhibit his artwork until he was 30, and then only when he was invited to show at the Johannesburg Art Gallery as a guest artist. His decision to delay the public showing of his work was partly based on religious grounds (Christ’s ministry began after he had turned 30) and partly on the belief that an artist needs to mature somewhat before exhibiting his or her work.

The first exhibition of Boshoff’s work at the Johannesburg Art Gallery opened on 12 September 1981, the artist’s 30th birthday. He exhibited a number of major works, including TAFELBOEK (1975-1979), KASBOEK (1981), KUBUS (1976 – 1982), STOKKIESDRAAI (1980), VERSKEUR (1979), BANGBOEK (1978-1981), SKYNBORD (1977- 1980), BLOKKIESRAAILSEL (1974-1980) and SANDKOEVERT (undated).[2]

Boshoff admits to an inherent nervousness, a distrust of most things, especially electronic equipment, and is consumed by compulsive attention to detail. He counters his nervousness by always being exceedingly well prepared for anything and everything. He relates how as a teacher and lecturer he was so ‘very nervous’ that he prepared his lessons with fanatical attention to detail, so much so that he even anticipated questions and prepared answers in advance.

His mistrust of technology was validated at our talk when the borrowed laptop intended to project his carefully prepared presentation on a screen failed to work. His own more trusted and reliable equipment had yet to arrive from

Willem Boshoff, Big Druid in his Cubicle, 2009, Art Basel, Switzerland

Willem Boshoff, Big Druid in his Cubicle, 2009, Art Basel, Switzerland (Goodman Gallery)

He inhabited, worked and slept (sporadically) in a specially constructed cubicle for seven days and nights.

But back in the meeting room it would seem fortuitous that without the visual material to accompany the discussion the focus centred on the man, his life, his words and worldview – and made for a particularly interesting encounter with one of South Africa’s foremost artists. Also there is the promise of another meeting at a later stage to take the discussion further and to show projected visuals of some of his remarkable body of work.

Boshoff told us that at the age of 36 he was fanatically fit, to the extent that he participated in numerous marathons. But then he was suddenly and inexplicably struck down with a debilitating illness. For the next twenty years he endured unimaginable pain and discomfort as the result of a condition for which there was no relief, no explanation and therefore no cure. He sighed with resignation as he said, ‘It was miserable’. Four years ago, in extreme pain, unable to walk and close to death, he was for the first time correctly diagnosed and treated for lead poisoning.  He contracted this affliction in the mid 1980s after resorting to collecting and restoring old fireplaces for sale, working on an old farm in Doornfontein, south of Johannesburg. He was 33, had just divorced his first wife and had bills to pay. Working without a mask, he inadvertently inhaled dangerously high levels of lead present in the paint he used.

Today one discerns in Boshoff a deep-rooted realisation of the enormity of having been given a second lease of life. There is something about the expression in his eyes and his demeanour that hint at the incredulity of having survived a life threatening ordeal. And then, of course, there was his immense relief of having been freed from constant physical and mental anguish, even though his health remains comprised as some damage is irreversible.

Before being correctly diagnosed, Boshoff was unable to sleep, forcing him into a ‘particularly strange and unusual lifestyle’, ‘not unlike that of a reclusive monk’, he says. Constant toil was one of the only ways of coping with his severe pain and discomfort. He found some measure of respite in an unremitting working regimen. This, he says, also accounts for his exceptionally prolific body of work. He still leads the life of a loner, ‘a strange and meditative life’ in spite of having remarried in 1987 and being the father of four children.

His persistent compulsion to drill down into the core of all things takes on many forms of expression – including music. Boshoff told us that he has even written allegorical music scores. His interest in music spans medieval and early music, as well as avant garde music.[3] Yet one of his primary obsessions remains a fascination with words, their origins and meaning. He is inordinately drawn to uncovering the essence of arcane and difficult words. He grapples with individual words until he can define their quintessential meaning, until ‘I can give obscure words a face’, he says.

Boshoff discovered the true value and power of language and words and how they can include, exclude or alienate others. He became aware of how a good command of language can bestow dominion over others less fluent. This was particularly evident when he, as an Afrikaans speaker, began teaching at English language schools in the 1970s.[4] ‘I became aware of the power relationship of words and how words can either franchise or disenfranchise people’, he explained. He also came to understand that ‘there is no monopoly on knowledge and that knowledge is not exclusively the domain of the intelligencia.’

Boshoff acquired a set of word-building tape recordings which he played continuously in his car – and he learnt the most difficult words by heart. He kept up this pursuit all the while keeping it a secret until he had a very real and deep-seated understanding of particularly obscure words. He spent relentless hours uncovering 10,000 obscure words which he defined in his own words and then memorised. At a particularly painful period during his illness he spend vast amounts of time going through the over 200 dictionaries he collected over time. He has over the years compiled and published a number of dictionaries.[5]

While teaching, he carefully chose the moment to reveal his incredible knowledge of the English language and the origins of words, often Greek. He would then write difficult words on the blackboard and challenge his fellow teachers or students to come up with the meaning of the word. One day the word ‘elements’ came up in class. He put up the word ‘Maetic’ and no-one knew what it meant. Boshoff could not only explain the full meaning of the word and elaborate on its origins, the root of the word – and apply the word.  He spoke of how the Maetic method was used by Socrates to bring out the truth. Boshoff felt empowered by this experience giving credence to the notion that individuals are empowered and emboldened by language.

Much of Boshoff’s art gives visual expression to concepts- as-words. Words exist because they describe something of the human condition, human thought and activity. With his dictionaries and with his art he sets about interpreting and giving weight and meaning to these concepts.

The power of words and the powerlessness of those who do not have easy access to words is the idea behind Boshoff’s BLIND ALPHABET (1991 – 2000), a highlight at Johannesburg’s first biennale in 1995. At first he wanted to build 10 walls, each with 1000 bricks with a plaque with a different word of the English language on each brick – and perhaps each of the other 10 official languages in South Africa. The flummoxed viewer would be at a loss to understand the words, would feel disempowered and disenfranchised. This ambitious work has yet to be realised, but Boshoff maintains he intends to bring this daunting project to fulfilment – and it remains a work in progress.[6]

But BLIND ALPHABET was completed and exhibited at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, drawing in the crowds and receiving critical acclaim. Boshoff explained how he wanted to make sighted people experience blindness by not being able to access the blind alphabet. This work forces sighted individuals – who take their sight for granted – to call on the blind to read and explain the words. It is a reversal of roles, a reversal of experience. Blind people are typically excluded from experiencing art unless they request permission to ‘see’ and touch works of art. Gallery staff may feel put upon, make their feelings known and leave the blind feeling disenfranchised. Sighted visitors were visibly moved by Boshofff’s work, when they had some inkling of what it meant to be blind and disempowered and when they could eventually ‘see’ and experience what the artist had set out to achieve.

One of Boshoff’s most enlightening moments of self-realisation was discovering his affiliation with Druids and similar creatures, although he was initially reluctant to go public with this discovery. He has always been profoundly drawn to trees and plants, leading to exhaustive botanical research. His fascination with wood and natural flora also evolved into an intensive study of Druids, Sangoma, Seers and ‘Sieners’ leading him to the Inyanga. There is an uncanny similarity between the European Druid, the South African Sangoma and the Inyanga, the ‘man of trees’ – and Boshoff himself.

One of Boshoff’s most profound discoveries was that all true Druids have experienced near death – one more thing he has in common with these ‘cultural repositories of knowledge’. Boshoff’s study of Greek further elucidated the origins and practices of the Druid and their extraordinary close association with trees (particularly the oak) and their ability to heal using plants. Druids also have ‘accomplices’ or ‘side kicks’ (wood or tree nymphs) to assist them with their tasks. The sheer scale and weight of Boshoff’s work requires him to employ assistants to help him with his immense sculptures.

The artist was born into world imbued with wood, his father was a carpenter and the artist often assisted the older Boshoff in his workshop. Boshoff has never veered too far from his close relationship with wood fashioning many a complex and multilayered sculpture out of this material. He has carved, crafted and coaxed out of wood many extraordinary works, often making reference to books and words, such as the remarkable TAFELBOOK (1975-1979). Yet, he says, he could never find exactly what he was striving for until he located his close affiliation to the Druids.

In Boshoff’s view, the artist like the Druid must be exposed to nature. ‘Just like the fine artist the Druid must train him or herself to look. Both must be visually aware to be able to make social deductions’, Boshoff explained. Like the artists, the Druid has to establish where the individual fits into a social context, and how power relationships play out. How power relationships play out fascinates Boshoff and he is acutely aware of how social deductions can be made by closely observing the relationship between, for example, a man and his horse and how a man treats his horse – or how ‘a man treats his woman’, he added.

Like the Druid, Boshoff incessantly walks and he sees things, he is ‘omnivagrant’. He, like a Druid, walks where others do not venture and he walks endlessly. This, Boshoff said, is one of the ways in which he sees the things that he applies to his art. Boshoff also habitually meditates. He describes it as sliding across a beautiful pool of water, of being in a space where he need only focus on his breathing, as if he no longer feels the need to be anywhere at all. It is also a place where he no longer feels tired. ‘It is like floating or walking on clouds – or on water’, he added wryly.

In view of Boshoff’s previous extreme immersion in religion one may well wonder how his illness and journey of self-discovery has influenced his attitude towards God. He explained that he responds to the question ‘Do you believe in God?’ with two answers: ‘Yes I do’ and “No I don’t.’ It all depends, he says, on what is meant by the question. He raised his hands and moved them from side to side as he asked: ‘Does it mean this, or does it mean that?’ The point is what exactly is meant by the question?

For Boshoff it is very important to show his work outside in the open air, and for art not always only to be exhibited in what he refers to ‘refrigerated air conditioned spaces encircled by walls’. ‘I love to have art where the wind blows, where you can feel the wind on your skin,’ he says. He spoke with great passion of his outdoor sculptures, like Garden of Words III (2006) comprising 15 000 ‘flowers’ inspired by a visit to a World War I cemetery in Flanders. The Latin name of each flower is printed on a white ‘handkerchief’, held in a red cup and planted in the ground in blocks of immaculately straight rows.

Boshoff’s massive ‘words on polished (once) molten black rock’ form a large and important component of his work. Circle of Knowledge (2001) installed at the University of Johannesburg comprises eleven granite rocks, carved to resemble large black pebbles. Pebbles, psephos in Greek, were used in ancient times to cast a vote. The Romans used stones to do maths and arithmetic. This theme recurs in a commission done for the Johannesburg head office of BHP-Billiton. This work called Psephos (1994-1995) is made up of nine panels with 18 pebble types collected from the nine provinces of South Africa. The pebbles are positioned to form nine crosses, the mark conventionally made to cast a vote and refers to the first democratic election in South Africa.

At a 2009 exhibition called ‘Sources – Contemporary Sculpture in the Landscape’ shown in the sculpture garden of the Nirox Foundation appropriately situated in the Cradle of Humankind, west of Johannesburg, Boshoff exhibited Children of the Stars: Big B (2009) and Children of the Stars: little B (2009). These huge stone sculptures are created from the most impenetrable black granite in South Africa. With these works Boshoff pays homage to Archimedes. On the two halves he has ‘sandblasted concentric snippets of unresolved mathematical philosophy – ripples when a pebble falls in a pool’.[7] Boshoff writes,

‘My favourite moment in this work occurs when it rains – Archimedes taking a bath. The raindrops soak up the grey texts so that they vanish into the black of the overall granite, their life taken. Yet, when the sun shines on the piece, the words dry out and “Eureka!” the texts resurface miraculously – nothing skills them. The sword sadly intrudes, but somehow the chalk remains indelible.’[8]

Willem Boshoff, Morabaraba Stone (detail), 2009, Belfast black granite with sandblasted text (Source Goodman Gallery)

Boshoff’s Morabaraba Stone (2009) exhibited at the same outdoor venue has cast in ‘stone for eternity, probably the oldest game in the world and played throughout Africa.’[9]

Willem Boshoff, Morabaraba Stone, 2009 (Source Goodman Gallery)

At the time of the talk, Boshoff was working on Penelope’s Distaff (2009), shaped from hard black rock in the form of a four and half meter spindle ‘or rod for the winding of yarn to be spun’. Lines from Penelope’s story taken from the ancient Greek and Latin text are wound around the spindle. This work formed an integral part of Penelope and the Cosmos, the inaugural exhibition – with fellow artist, Karel Nel – in the newly created contemporary art space, Circa, in Johannesburg, November 2009.

Boshoff based this work on the legend of Penelope who, following the untimely death of her father-in-law, was left at home by Odysseus, her newly-wed husband, who went off to war. During his time away the exceptionally beautiful Penelope began to weave a funeral shroud, a task traditionally associated almost entirely with women. It is recorded that during her husband’s absence she had no less that 108 suitors trying to win her affection. But she proclaimed that she would not entertain their overtures until the shroud was complete. As time passed and her husband had still not returned she would unravel the cloth so as to postpone its completion and in so doing keep her many ardent admirers at bay. Boshoff’s multilayered tribute to Penelope revolves not so much around what she was doing, says Boshoff, but what Penelope and other women are thinking when they are alone, their sadness and their longing.

Willem Boshoff’s deep rooted search to uncover the meaning of words and things, and to translate them into multilayered conceptually works, fastidiously executed has given rise to a body of profound and challenging works – and earned him local and international recognition.

For those of us who gathered around the meeting table to hear the word according to Big Druid, this was no ordinary Thursday – and Boshoff certainly is no ordinary man.

Willem Boshoff’s was invited to speak at Sasol Limited’s head office in Rosebank, Johannesburg as part of an art education programme.


[1] Boshoff points to this word: pogonotrophy Greek: to not cut one’s beard

[2] Siebrits, W (2007), p. 17  Willem Boshoff: word forms and language shapes 1975 – 2007

[3]Siebrits, W (2007), p. 116.  Willem Boshoff: word forms and language shapes 1975 – 2007

[4] 1973-1976 part time teacher, Jeppe Boys’ High and Johannesburg College for Advanced Technical Education – Languages and Fine art. 1975-77 teacher, Parktown Boys’ High School – Afrikaans, Religious Instruction and Fine Art. Source: Siebrits, W (2007), p. 116.

[5] 1977 Dictionary of Colour; others include Dictionary of Manias and Phobias; Dictionary of Morphology; Dictionary of –ologies and –isms; Dictionary of Beasts and Demons; Dictionary of Winds, Dictionary of  Obscure Financial Terms; Places Mother Might not Approve of; Unmentionabilia; Red Names; 2004 completes the Oh No! Dictionary; completes in 1999 Dictionary of perplexing English – a ten year project, using research from 200 dictionaries including the 25 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary; 2000 compiles Beyond the Epiglottis, a dictionary of extraordinary terms in rhetoric. Source: Siebrits, W (2007), p. 116.  Willem Boshoff: word forms and language shapes 1975 – 2007

[6] Blind Walls (1988 – 97), a post modern dictionary for the 11 official languages of South Africa, consisting of 10 000 arcane worlds on 10 obstacle walls – work in progress. Source Siebrits, W (2007), p. 116.  Willem Boshoff: word forms and language shapes 1975 – 2007.

[7] Boshoff, W. (2009), pg.  22 Sources – Contemporary Sculpture in the Landscape. Nirox Foundation and Goodman Gallery. Johannesburg

[8] As above

[9] As above

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Marvellous Art Musings interactively muses on a personal journey in the field of twentieth century and contemporary South African art, and showcases the vibrant South African art scene and more ... Marvellous Art provides art consulting, curating and writing services
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3 Responses to WILLEM BOSHOFF: THE WORD ACCORDING TO BIG DRUID, knowing through seeing…

  1. Margie Backhouse says:

    What a remarkable thing it is to be in the company of a druid, and to be so vividly reminded of it – thank you Marion.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Musing on some of my favourite art events in 2009 | Marvellous Art Musings

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