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Collection of wooden curios (African figures, masks, elephants, rhinoceros etc.), cut up into small pieces and mounted on a discarded plywood base

2100 mm (width) X 1100 mm (height)

Text, simulated by groupings of cut-out pieces of curio art: ‘YUCK’

Death of African Art

  • DEATH OF AFRICAN ART is a monkey on a typewriter throwing bones and discovering by chance a resulting configuration spelling the word ‘YUCK’.


    Bryony Purvis in her submission for Master of Fine Art at Michaelis, University of Cape Town writes: “The infinite monkey theorem states that any text, such as the complete works of Shakespeare could be written by a monkey hitting at random the keys on a typewriter for an infinite length of time. The monkey is used as a metaphor for any device that produces random sequences of symbols. This event has such a tiny chance of occurring, that it is most improbable but importantly, not impossible. Jorge Luis Borges traced this concept as far back as Aristotle’s Metaphysics and a theory about the world evolving from random combinations of atoms, a much-contested point of view.”


    For a discussion on incidental patterns and images Google apophenia and pareidolia.


    Tourist markets in Africa offer a great variety of merchandise. In Cape Town and Johannesburg, for example, there are large warehouses loaded from floor to ceiling with endless examples of African ‘art’.


    Traditionally, African art was something used within particular communities for specific needs. These included healing, divination, respect for the ancestors, show of power, apotropaic demonstrations (warding off evil), episematic displays of colour and design that woo and inform the opposite sex, preparation ceremonies for hunting and warfare and initiation rituals. Objects originally devoted to causes such as these are highly treasured and can be found in ethnic museums or dedicated collections.


    Unfortunately, the population explosion in Africa created a desperate need for employment. This led to a ruthless exploitation in which workers, notably African crafters, are paid very little and in which natural resources, particularly rare woods, are being depleted.


    Because I work with wood and because I have a great interest in the appreciation and conservation of nature, I often sit down with the street vendors of African ‘sculpture’ to discuss their ideas, where they are from and how they source their materials.


    When I look at ‘tourist art’ in present day Africa I can’t help thinking that something is wrong. This ‘art’ draws heavily on the sacred premises of the past, yet it has become compromised and beleaguered. I feel for the craftspeople, they have families to feed.


    In DEATH OF AFRICAN ART I try to express my disappointment. Over time I collected a pile of cheap African ‘art objects’, and proceeded to cut these up into small bits and pieces. The cut-up pieces appear to have a strange allure of their own and I often use them in acts of divination in much the way as sangomas and traditional seers throw the ‘bones’.


    Willem Boshoff

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