A mystic's hard words

Bull. Pig. Racist.
Vulture. In a few words Willem Boshoff seems to be at war with the world in more overt ways than ever before.

Religion, imperialism, capitalism and globalisation are all targets for his word anger—and he really does appear to be a lot angrier than ever before.

The work, Racist in South Africa, outside the gallery’s front door sets the combative tone with an assault of I loathe, I detest, I fume, I weep—all the time asserting his right to ­complain as a white South African.

Deeper inside the gallery, another work, Dubul ‘Ibhunu (Kill the Boer), simplistically catalogues the names of the roughly 1?000 farmers murdered in post-apartheid South Africa.

Reflecting on these pieces, Boshoff casts himself as a druid, a protector in society.

“The druid is on the side of the loser, the outcast, the person who is unwanted. There is a bit of the druid in everything that I do. I want to defend the defenceless.”

It is ironic that Boshoff, so attracted to the precision of words, should position himself as a druid, that pre-Christian figure about whom there is so little historical evidence and whose representation has become the stuff of Hollywood’s rampant imagination.

Dishevelled identity
Less slippery is Boshoff’s Self Portrait, a melange of coloured perspex, smashed bits of old computers, pebbles and bougainvillea twigs set in a sea of the glass letter beads so redolent of teenage friendship bracelets. It is a rich and insightful, even self-deprecating, exploded view of the artist’s processes, obsessions and dishevelled identity. The twigs have been fixed as they have fallen but their very form is always going to intimate the artist’s wildly woolly hair and beard. It renders the self-portrait recognisable as much as it is revealing.

This throwing down of objects and leaving them where they fall, as if they have meaning that can be interpreted like thrown bones, is a device Boshoff uses again in another work, The Druid’s Table. It is based on an interaction with fellow artists Christian Nerf and Douglas Gimberg—Boshoff gave them wood off-cuts from which they made objects that were returned to the “druid” to do with as he pleased. Boshoff chose to throw them down on a table and fix them where they fell.

Carefully spotlit in the centre of the Goodman Gallery’s main exhibition room, this work appears to be a centrepiece of sorts. It reveals a process.

But it also obscures meaning and interpretation, with the mechanism for the druid’s divining always unclear—in the act of throwing, in the falling of the objects, or perhaps in attempting to honour and fix their fall?

Boshoff’s father was a master carpenter. Boshoff too has a way with wood. With any material actually. Everything he does is finely crafted and plainly beautiful to look at. His use and integration of materials double the consideration and skill with which he conceptualises ideas around botany, geography and literature. It is difficult to ignore the beautiful handmade milkweed paper in Pig and Vulture, in both of which textual fragments, including human hair and acacia thorn, are embedded, to reference the changing connotations of the two animals most maligned in the sacred texts of the Abrahamic religions.

The artist professes ambiguity in the way he tackles capitalism and religion but the predominance of a large single word over tiny fragments of text in a number of the larger works on display surely tips the balance in favour of the equivocal. There is little of the thickly fragmented, inaccessible and sometimes overwhelming wordplay that has obsessed Boshoff for some time—except perhaps in the gallery’s two side rooms, but these prints, aluminium panels and videos feel like a secondary narrative to the artist’s main preoccupation in this exhibition.

With imperialism on his mind, Boshoff takes aim at the United States in a few works—a disaggregated map of the world in Swat, the rendition of the letters U, S and A in the colour of dried blood in Crusade and a sculptural interpretation of one of Hansjörg Mayer’s concrete grid poems in SAU AUS USA.

The reference to the military Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams is overt, given the US’s itchiness to invade. And the parallels in righteousness between the medieval crusades and George W Bush’s self-styled crusade against al-Qaeda are similarly undisguised by the artist.
Boshoff is supposedly the “big druid”. “Just like the fine artist, the druid must train him or herself to look,” the artist says. “Both must be visually aware to be able to make social deductions.”

He certainly has the look of a druid—tall, bearded, apparently benign but always ready to speak with mystic, even religious, zeal. But the artist and the druid aren’t exactly blood brothers.

And, for now, at the Goodman Gallery, this leaves Boshoff sitting a little less comfortably between a polemical rock and a rhetorical hard place.

Rory Bester is an art historian at the Wits School of Arts.

Swat is on at the Goodman Gallery Johannesburg until September 24

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