Willem Boshoff

Article Bio Works Projects
additional name:
Willem Hendrik Adriaan Boshoff
apartheid, language, memory, power
Visual Arts (installation art, sculpture)
Written and spoken word (poem)
Africa, Southern
South Africa
created on:
July 14, 2003
last changed on:
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Visual Glossolalia. The art of sculpting in tongue

Willem Boshoff was born in 1951 in Vereeniging, South Africa, and has received degrees in Education and Fine Arts. For almost thirty years, Willem Boshoff has been researching the potential and qualities of language, memory, and power in conceptual, often long-term projects. Early works include diaries in miniature format and visual poems. More recently, Boshoff has produced large-scale installations that draw on his life-long fascination with dictionaries and encyclopaedias. He lives and works in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Originating in the artist’s personal experience of isolation during the apartheid years and his desire to understand the notions of meditation, resistance, and artistic production, Boshoff’s earliest works can be seen as almost meditative exercises carried out entirely without a viewer or reader in mind. In an interview, Boshoff has mused that his first conceptual artwork may have been his attempt to learn the New Testament by heart in 1972, as an exercise in understanding the characteristics of oral language, which he considered liberating against the iron laws of written language.

Throughout the 1970s Boshoff produced small and rather private works that often took the form of concrete poetry, such as ”Bangboek” (“The Book That is Afraid”, 1971-81), a cryptic diary which contains private notes on pacifism that were made in protest to military service in the South African Defence Force. Around the same time, he produced “Kykafrikaans” (“Lookafrikaans”, 1977-80), a volume of 84 visual poems made of typewritten words and lines in Afrikaans. Afrikaans, the language of the white administration and police force in South Africa, is subjected to a series of visual mutations and mutilations, and the typewritten pages begin to appear as dense, opaque pictures. Individual poems, such as the poem “Pro Patria”, which is composed of fragments of marching orders (left – right), illustrate how Boshoff pollutes language in order to demonstrate the absurdity of its oppressive proclaimed purity.

In the early 1980s Boshoff also began producing sculptures in long-term, self-imposed procedural projects. Between 1982 and 1983, he produced the “370 Day Project”, a series of small wood sculptures carved from 370 different types of wood, each displaying a different symbol or sign. In an ongoing, large-scale installation, the work ”Blind Alphabet ABC” (1991-96), Boshoff carries on the concept of a differentiation of symbolic meaning in sculptural form. ”Blind Alphabet ABC” is a three-dimensional dictionary of sorts, and so far comprises 338 finished sculptural units. Each sculpture symbolizes one (difficult or abstract) word to be understood only through touch, as the sculptures are stored in boxes and thus hidden from clear view and accessible only to the blind. In an inversion of power relations the work creates a dependency on the touching and reading skills of blind guides. Without blind people in attendance, the Blind Alphabet remains lost.

More recently Boshoff has produced sculptures and installations that engage with the properties of language as a tool of knowledge and domination, and with the perilous state of smaller, local languages threatened with extinction. For his installation “The Writing that Fell off the Wall” (1997), Boshoff installed fourteen empty pedestals in a gallery space surrounded by small wooden chalkboards inscribed with one word each (Truth; Identity; Boundary; Order; Faith; Purity; Reason; Destiny; Progress; Salvation; Purpose; Standard; Perfection) in seven European languages (English, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, and German). Boshoff’s work can also be understood as reference to the reasons given as justification for the subjugation of Africa by the colonial powers or as a memorial to the difficulties of finding and preserving one’s own language.

For the Havana Biennial in 2000 Boshoff created an ephemeral installation that once again took up the topic of linguistic domination. ”Writing in the Sand” (2000) consists of two large fields of white sand that display names and words of some of the newly recognised official languages of South Africa (Sesotho sa Leboa, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, isiNdebele, isiXhosa, and isiZulu), which Boshoff wrote onto them with black sand. Spoken for hundreds of years, these indigenous tongues were marginalised and disenfranchised under European rule. Today, even though their existence is constitutionally secured, these languages remain under siege due to their subjugation to other forms of linguistic domination. A second part of the installation refers to this threat by spelling out abstruse English words that would be obscure and difficult even to the most sophisticated English speakers, for example “pognology” – the study of beards, or “carphology” – an inordinate obsession to fondle one’s pyjamas. These abstruse terms are then explained in one of the small subaltern languages. Native English speakers, who are used to being patronizing towards speakers of other languages, now rely on the help of other, “lower” speakers to understand the meaning of the words they do not understand in their own language.
Author: Christian Rattemeyer


Born 1951, in Vereeniging, South Africa.
Lives and works in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Willem Boshoff received a National Art Teacher’s Diploma from the Johannesburg College of Art (now Technikon Witwatersrand) in 1974, a National Higher Diploma in Fine Art (Printmaking) from the Technikon Witwatersrand in 1980, and a Masters Diploma in Technology in Fine Art (Sculpture) from Technikon Witwatersrand in 1984. In a teaching career spanning 23 years, he taught various art-related subjects to students on all levels of development: Part-time teacher at Jeppe Boys’ High School from 1973-76, and at the Johannesburg College for Advanced Technical Education - Languages and Fine Art from 1975-77. He taught Afrikaans, Religious Instruction and Fine Art at the Parktown Boys High School from 1977-80, and was a senior lecturer at Technikon Witwatersrand from 1980-82. Between 1983 and 1991, he served as an Associate Director and Head of Department there, and from 1991 to 1996 was Associate Director. Since 1996, Boshoff works exclusively as an independent full-time artist.



Published Written,
Not stated. Goodman Gallery: Johannesburg

Licked : Willem Boshoff

Published Written,
Not stated. Stevenson: Cape Town

Exhibitions (choice)

Exhibition / Installation,
1981 Guest artist, Johannesburg Art Gallery 1982 Natalie Knight Gallery, Johannesburg, with Joe Tilson 1984 South African Association of Arts, Pretoria, with Hans Potgieter 1985 Work selected for Tributaries, an exhibition of South African art touring South Africa and West Germany, curated by Ricky Burnett 1994 State of the Art, Everard Read Contemporary Gallery, Johannesburg 1995 Inside/Outside, Africus Biennale 1995, Johannesburg Art Gallery FNB VITA Art Now, exhibition, Johannesburg Art Gallery Siyawela, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England 1996 FNB Vita Art Now, Johannesburg Art Gallery South African Art, Atlanta, USA BAD FAITH CHRONICLES, Mermaid Theatre Gallery, London Don’t Mess with Mister In-between, Culturgest, Lisbon, Portugal 23rd International Biennale of São Paulo 1997 Unplugged, Rembrandt Gallery, Johannesburg TREE OF KNOWLEDGE, Alliance Francaise, Johannesburg; Important and Exportant, Johannesburg Biennale 1997, Johannesburg Art Gallery FNB Vita Award for Art, Sandton Municipal Gallery Purple and Green, Pretoria Art Museum. 1998 Sanlam Centre, Cape Town National Library for the Blind, Birmingham, England; Museu da Cidade, Pavilhao Branco, Lisbon, Portugal Dreams and Clouds, Kulturhuset, Stockholm, Sweden Triennale der Kleinplastik, Stuttgart, Germany 1999 Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950’s - 1980’s, Queens Museum of Art, New York 8th Floralies Internationales, Nantes, France; Group Exhibition, Johannesburg Art Foundation Manuscript Exhibition, Carfax Gallery, Johannesburg Emergence, University of the Witwatersrand 2000 Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerp, Antwerp Belgium Translation/Seduction/ Displacement, White Box Gallery, New York, After New York, Johannesburg Civic Gallery Mnemosyne, University of the Witwatersrand Urban Futures 2000, MuseuMAfrica, Johannesburg Aardklop art festival, Potchefstroom Havana Biennale, Havana, Cuba Museo Nacional, Centro de Arte, Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain 2001 The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, Munich, Berlin, New York, Chicago Authentic/Ex-centric: Africa in and out of Africa, 49th Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy

My African notebook

Published Written,
Not stated. Bell Desk Top: Greenside


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.

The Short Century

Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa

(18 May 01 - 29 July 01)