BETWEEN AFRICA AND EUROPE: THE LANGUAGE(S) OF CIVILIZATION(S)
As was the case with Marcel Duchamp, art as an institution is unsettled by Willem Boshoff's work. Whereas Duchamp disenfranchised the work of art as masterpiece, Boshoff disenfranchises the art public as connoisseurs of the finest things in life. The kind of art public that the institution of art presupposes, viz. an art historically informed, educated and relatively well-to-do (enough to have leisure time and space available for itself) group of people, who, ironically, are the first to meet Boshoff's works, realises immediately that they are at a disadvantage. Encountering Boshoff's Blind Alphabet, the normally sighted art-going public finds itself dependent on those people for whom an art gallery is usually not accessible. The visually challenged part of the public, completely marginalized by the world of the art gallery, is called upon to disclose the meaning of the collection of objects. The same strategy is employed in Writing in the Sand and Circle of Knowledge. "Marginalized" or abstruse words in English, recognizable as part of the vocabulary of global English by the suffixes of -ology or-ism by any user of English are explained in indigenous (South African) languages. The effect of double alienation (marginalized English words, explained in a "foreign" language) is strengthened by the medium. Writing in the Sand is executed with silicone and grounded, oxidized ore - silicone conjuring the notion of the fleetingness of computer generated writing and of a shared meaning agreed and understood between two languages. Circle of Knowledge consists of eleven granite blocks on which a mini-dictionary of twenty of these unfamiliar -ology and -ism words are explained in the eleven official languages of South Africa. Although the indigenous languages of South Africa have the floor, even literally in the case of Writing in the Sand, and although they are engraved in stone in Circle of Knowledge, they remain unheard and unspoken, stumbling blocks for the international intellectual world traveller. In these works the artist "wish[es] to reverse the dominance and power of privileged tongues [and positions]" and to frustrate them. The artist explains:
"Their frustration is only relieved when the speaker of a 'lesser' language comes to their rescue. The extraordinary explanation [of the so-called marginalized English word] is calculated to bring a smile to the face and to engender further conversation. Speakers of indigenous languages have at least one advantage over English speakers. The Zulu speaker, for example, knows how to speak and read English in addition to Zulu, but it is extremely rare to find an English speaker who can speak or read Zulu. In my work, the Zulu is able to patronise and indulge the helpless English speaker. This informal 'entente cordiale' creates a change for people who are unlikely to talk to one another to share things in an amicable way.
In Boshoff's work the aspect of the clever (or cunning) craftedness of the traditional masterpiece, even the dimension of what Monroe C. Beardsley dubbed the "fooling around with meanings", are retained (the latter especially because of the 'conceptual' nature of Boshoff's work). But the masterpiece as master of the situation of aesthetic encounter, weighed down, as it were, by unsymmetrical relationships of cultural (and political) power, is transfigured into the facilitator of aesthetic-agreeable-relationships of mutual recognition. Not only is a core category of Enlightenment aesthetics rehabilitated, but also the core of its social project (or the project of the modern, as Jürgen Habermas calls it) shorn of its Eurocentrism. Aesthetic experiences are mustered as existential models for social behaviour. The informal 'entente cordiale' that Boshoff wishes his work(s) of conceptual art to engender, is in a sense the final work of art where the good and the beautiful are two judgements that point to the same thing, viz. the humane society.
With the notion on the entente cordiale (engendered by a work of art) Boshoff identifies with 'the company of the preachers' of a humane society, heralded by Immanuel Kant. Of course, Boshoff does not preach literally from a pulpit. Bearing Writing in the Sand in mind, one is rather invited to come and play in a sandpit of possible humane meanings. In a sense, Boshoff takes his cue from Kant's idea of "the culture of the mental powers". For Boshoff works of art can be the Kantian "propadeutic" to the constitution of "the befitting social spirit of humankind" (in the original German of the first edition of the Critique of Judgement stands very tellingly, Geselligkeit), that is "on the one hand, the universal feeling of sympathy, and, on the other, the faculty of being able to communicate universally one's inmost self". Works of art are an alternative discourse through which humankind is enabled to articulate and share beyond established, and therefore narrow, discourses the profoundly human. Language in art, and the language of art, are intrinsically bound up with the deepest interests of what it is to be human.
It has already be stated that, in the tradition of Enlightenment culture, to which Willem Boshoff responds in a particular way, aesthetic experiences are mustered as existential models of social behaviour. So David Hume encouraged us to follow the standard of taste of his European gentleman cum critic:
"I believe every man would think his life or fortune... secure in the hands... of a FRENCH or ENGLISH gentleman, the rank of men the most civilized in the most civilized nation".
But Boshoff's cunning play "on the dim edge which separates... meaning from non-sense" turns the tables on the likes of Hume. The 'rank of men the most civilized in the most civilized nations' are deprived of their power by confronting them with a language in which they are helpless. One can term this act of disempowerment through the work of art 'the soft vengeance of a freedom fighter" - a pacifist freedom fighter's response to the history of colonial conquest.
The pacifist resists and subverts with critique by way of subverted language. Critique of power relations is the armature of the notion of a humane society. A humane society is not possible unless human beings become aware of the absurdities of one-sided attempts to civilize, to refine or to polish, thereby sacrificing diversity for sameness. Boshoff dramatises, so to speak, this view on history in his Panifice. The work derives from a text in the Gospel according to Matthew. 7:9: "Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask for bread, will give him a stone?" Panifice is a collection of pairs of bread on breadboards, each pair consisting of one brad on a breadboard inscribed with the verse from the Matthew gospel in an extant European language, and a bread on a breadboard inscribed with the same verse in an African, sometimes extinct language. The breadboards with their engraved texts, of black granite, are reminiscent of gravestones. One has to stoop to read the words. A searing interplay of meanings is the result. The issue of the meaning of intercultural contact is raised: was the bread of European culture that was distributed in Africa wholesome or deadly? What is shared by Europe and Africa? Memories of extinction, such as the culture of the San people who were hunted down like animals? Or do Africa and Europe make company, that is come together (Latin: cum) for bread (Latin: panis)? In the final analysis Panifice reflects on the nature of the concreteness of sharing meaning. Is meaning encountered in the humane gesture of reaching out to the other in their otherness, enriching the self by the experience of the other, or is meaning dictated by casting the self in stone and exporting it to distant consumers presumably in need of a self like the one and only self?
Is human society gesellig, or stone-dead?
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