The art of taxi hand signals

Every day thousands of hands stretch out along commuter routes across Gauteng speaking a silent language of taxi gestures.

The upraised index finger indicating you are headed to town. The hand turned palm up, the fingers grasping an invisible fruit signify your destination is Orange Farm. These gestures are the framework for a complex system of transport routes.

Developed from necessity, and with ingenuity, this silent exchange of signs is the fundamental unit of communication for millions of minibus taxi commuters.

Artist Susan Woolf is probably one of the few people who can signal any destination in the province. Petite and blonde, with a pixie-like appearance and a gently charming manner, she is also the least likely to be identified in a line-up as having frequented taxi ranks from Bree Street to Roodepoort.

Her exhibition at Wits Art Museum, Taxi Hand Signs: Symbolic Landscapes of Public Culture, is the culmination of nine years of research and artistic production around what has been called South Africa’s “12th official language”.

In that time she has documented and deciphered Gauteng’s taxi hand signs and created a remarkable lexicon for blind people to use this mode of transport comfortably.

Taxi hand signs are a shared language, learned by imitation and word of mouth. They are basic gestures tied to narrative threads that swirl through community life connecting today with history and folklore. Of course, not everyone using them knows what they signify apart from a place name.

To understand their meaning, Woolf conducted interviews with taxi bosses, drivers and commuters. Take the sign for Marabastad — one hand with its fingers grasped together, the other hand performing a slicing motion below it. Woolf found that it was derived from the suspected muti killing of a Marabastad taxi operator: the sign indicates the severing of his testicles. It caused upset, but remains in currency — an efficient signifier of a destination.

Documenting the signs
Even without knowing the meanings of the signs, the intricate urban hieroglyphs marking the wall and floor of the gallery attract attention as artwork. The exhibition is laid out as a journey and moves from realistic and graphical representations, rendered in watercolours, to abstraction and the interplay of shapes.

Woolf unravels the fascinating process of documenting the signs. For the sighted she used colour to paint the hand signs so they could be related to points on a map. To make them accessible to the blind, the process involved paring the signs down further, removing any ambiguity to distil the basic components of communication. Through a process of elimination she came to standard shapes — dots; a triangle. These are projected on to the gallery floor.

“The dot is the defining feature. Each dot is a finger. The triangle is the palm. You don’t need any other markers — these create the basic components of taxi hand signs for the blind. In all there are 14 shapes that grow into a universe of meaning,” she says.

A darkened booth contains the textured hand signs for touch with Braille explanations. Two short films accompany the exhibition, providing the taxi-rank sounds that fill the room. The main film is titled Izindlela Zamagundwane, a reference to the spontaneous actions of the drivers who will deviate from a planned route at a moment’s notice, like a mouse scurrying on its way.

The work is richly textured. Woolf attributes this to having created different parts for different audiences.

“The first was the audience for the taxi hand sign book published in 2009; urban black commuters who had created a unique language under the most difficult circumstances because they had to communicate to the driver. The second audience was blind people and the third an academic or conceptual art audience.”

She says: “I didn’t go back. I began on one end and never returned to the start because I wanted the conceptual work to be spontaneous.”

She says she struggled to articulate a word for “how artists do this thing that twists everything, shifting the original ideas around in your head and changing your perception”.

“It is there in the work of contemporary artists like Nicholas Hlobo, William Kentridge and Willem Boshoff.”

She called Boshoff in search of the perfect word and he suggested “boustrophe”, meaning: “Turn like an ox [in ploughing]”.

She writes: “This is a process of turning upside-down and mapping, creating new and seemingly provocative pathways, marking and tracing time, advancing to the next step.”

Combining art with social geography
Searching for theoretical underpinnings has always been part of the work as Woolf, in pursuit of understanding the taxi hand signs, was drawn back to the University of the Witwatersrand to complete her doctoral research, of which this exhibition is part.

Because of the social nature of the work it spanned beyond the fine arts department. She was directed to the anthropology department, and after a year began a cross-disciplinary thesis combining the study of anthroplogy with fine arts.

As we stand in the gallery, visitors approach Woolf to discuss the work. One of them is artist and associate professor Karel Nel. He comments that the work breaks aesthetic boundaries by combining art with social geography and urban planning, but also recalls the work of Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian artist credited with painting the first purely abstract works.

“A lot of contemporary art deals with the social. What’s interesting here is how those boundaries have been blurred. This is a part of life, and of the information we use to negotiate our way in the world. It makes one question how does one create a new language in the technological age,” he says.

Woolf has placed in the space the language that is used daily. And even though the gestures are silent, they are alive, awakening the imagination to the thousands of interactions and transactions that take place on roadsides every day.

Susan Woolf’s exhibition runs until July 14 at Wits Art Museum, on the corner of Jan Smuts Avenue and Jorissen Street, Braamfontein. Visit: Woolf will conduct walkabouts on July 3 at 11am, July 6 at 11am and July 10 at 1pm. 

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