The ambiguities of words, playful provocation and grave disquiet are ubiquitous elements in the work of Willem Boshoff. In SWAT, a new exhibition at Goodman Gallery Johannesburg, Boshoff reignites these components in a series of unique works that confront capitalism, religious text, exploitation, globalisation and imperialism, amongst other interrelated concerns. Characteristically, Boshoff does not present a straightforward stance, but rather goads us into asserting our own.
Many of Boshoff’s new works have a simple word or statement that has universal associations as their central focus. In
PIG Boshoff considers the negative associations that have been forced onto the word pig through definitive texts. Here he references Leonard Shlain’s book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, which proposes that “the process of learning alphabetic literacy rewired the human brain, with profound consequences for culture”. In the book, Shlain explores how in pre-alphabetic times, unclean animals were the noble ones. With the advent of the Abrahamic religions, these animals were condemned to be ‘dirty’, and their degraded status was enshrined in scriputure. On a massive sheet of milkweed paper, Boshoff interweaves fragments of texts from the Jewish Torah, the Quran and the Bible. Such definitive texts, Boshoff explains, “are dangerous things … Text makes knowledge permanent”. With this in mind, Boshoff uses text in a way that is deliberately open to interpretation, even if he himself is partial to a particular sentiment.
In new works Boshoff also explores a growing antagonism towards one of the world’s most controversial superpowers – the United States of America. The work SWAT brings together fragments of maps reformatted to form a distorted map of the world. Wooden swatters bearing a cut up US map are superimposed over the larger map. As a whole the work brings to mind SWAT teams, while the plastic insects spelling out the word, prompt the viewer to think of swatting flies. In what he refers to as a philosophical piece, Boshoff reflects on the way in which people are treated in the same unforgiving manner as insects. The work also recalls writer Ivan Vladislavic’s observation that one of Boshoff’s “main aims is recovery – of lost words, sated senses, family unities, broken maps.” In Crusade, Boshoff takes another stab at the United States. Within the work, wooden crosses form the background, while blocks of brown wood spell out the word crusade. Within the word, the central letters USA stand out, as they are made out of dark wooden spikes. Just as PIG refers to subjecting a word to a definitive association, Crusade refers to the imperial process of subjecting the world to a forced notion of what is right.
Boshoff will also take his manipulation of words to a performative level with the piece Burning Bush, the outcome of which will be revealed at the exhibition opening.
Willem Boshoff was born in Vereeniging, South Africa, in 1951 and now lives in Johannesburg. Boshoff studied and taught at the Johannesburg College of Art and the Witwatersrand Technikon (now the University of Johannesburg). He is both a wordsmith and a maker of images and objects. A self-taught dendrologist, his interests range widely across the fields of botany, literature, and geography. He has made concrete poetry; he reads and makes dictionaries; he is a sculptor and makes installations; he is an inveterate seeker of words, names, plants, and objects (both natural and synthetic), from which he constructs his art. Boshoff’s encyclopaedic impulse is evidenced in his collecting and making practices: everything is material for making art, every detail in the natural world is imbued with meaning and can be appropriated or spoken of with fervour. Boshoff’s work has been shown at many major museums in the world and he has been included in biennales in Johannesburg, Havana, Venice, and Saõ Paolo. In a performance at Art Unlimited in Basel in 2009, Boshoff presented Big Druid in his Cubicle, literally setting up residence in the exhibition space provided for the duration of the show.