Words can be such pricks: the wild, piercing randomness of ...

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Words can be such pricks: the wild, piercing randomness of meaning

Willem Boshoff spins webs of reference using his signature materials, letters

Hans Pienaar

Some time ago a funny T-shirt did the rounds: “Praat Afrikaans of Hou Jou Bek.” On face value here was an expression of rabid right-wing extremism, but the joke is really on the wearer. The person standing silently in front of him or her, are they obeying the instruction, or do they just not understand Afrikaans? And if someone starts speaking to them politely in English, are they bamboozling or mollycoddling them? 

It is a kind of interactive demonstration of the instabilities of identity, for both wearer and watcher. In a similar vein, Willem Boshoff flips the coin of what some would call whiteness already in the title of his latest exhibition, a not-quite-retrospective curated by Helene Smuts. Word Woes sounds wordsworthy in English, in Afrikaans decidedly uncouth: Get Wild. It could emanate from the identity fluctuations of many white South Africans with an English ouma or an Afrikaans granny in the cupboard; among black South Africans brought up in the two languages, the tension will be different but nevertheless there.

For conceptual artist Boshoff, the words are what it is about, being his signature materials along with black granite and rare varieties of wood. Like the latter, words split open into different meanings in different languages, but also into their different facets, elements or semiotic parts. Much of Boshoff’s work verges on literature, “concrete poetry”, in which the layout of the words and their physicality as marks on paper and other materials becomes an aesthetic pursuit in itself...

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