Collaboration: Johan Thom and Willem Boshoff
Etching by Johan Thom
Lines of alphabet beads on extruded acrylic, superimposed by Willem Boshoff
Landscape format with circular elements to the right
2200 mm (width) X 1275 mm (height)
Edition size: 6 plus 1 printer’s proof and 1 artist proof
Etching processed at NIROX Foundation and printed at Artist Proof Studios
An earth that speaks
If we allowed the earth to speak a few words, what would it say?
Much has been made of the earth as a nurturing person in so many cultures. In many societies the earth is seen as a mother with a voice and with an interest in us. I am a stickler for lists and catalogues and I found the following Wikipedia entries for earth goddesses:
Aisyt, Ala (Odinani), Al-lāt, Arinna, Asintmah, Atira, Beira, Bhūmi, Cel, Coatlicue, Diti, Erecura, Etugen Eke, Gaia, Ila, Iusaaset, Jörð, Khaltesh-Anki, Ki, Kishar, Libera, Liluri, Litavis, Lurbira, Māra, Mat Zemlya, Mefitis, Mother goddess, Mother Nature, Nantosuelta, Nerthus, Ninhursag, Onuava, Ops, Pachamama, Papa, Papahānaumoku, Pele, Phra Mae Thorani, Prithvi, Rangi and Papa, Rhea, Shala, Sif, Spenta Armaiti, Terra, Tlazolteotl, Toci, Tonantzin, Triple Goddess, Uras, Asase Ya, Yer Tanrı, Zemes-mãte, Žemyna.
If there is one thing a mother can do, it is talk. Usually she is the one who teaches the children in a family their words and how to express themselves. We even speak of ‘mother tongues’. Today, however, the primordial mother that gave life to all things, appears to be silent in a human sense.
In toying with the idea to allow the earth a brief moment of speech, I have often asked friends and students what they think the earth would say to us. Can they please give her a voice? Please put words in her mouth. After a moment of reflection almost all of them had the idea that the earth would say something unpleasant. It would tell us off and in many cases quite vociferously – a mother disowning her issue.
The general consensus was that she would scold us for the way we have treated her. We would be told to go away or at best leave her alone. In most cases the imagined words of the earth were euphemistically paraphrased, but in the strongest sense it was felt that she would swear at us or even put a curse on us.
In the end I imagine that the earth might dearly like to say “fuck off,” but this might not be heard because she would be censored from saying so to schools and in the media. I also guessed that if she were forced into saying anything less vulgar, she would not be quite honest. She needs to come up with something so drastic as to project her sense of disgust and dismay with us.
I finally decided on “piss-off!” for EARTH SIGNAL. As a rebuke, it has an angry, damning ring to it.
The battle to get the earth to speak.
I often fly from Johannesburg to Cape Town and when I do, I always ask for a window seat away from the wings, to be able to take photographs of the cloud formations and the patterns in the earth below.
Many airlines fly on daily routes from cities all over southern Africa to Cape Town. On approach to Cape Town International Airport, the planes align themselves with the runway against the wind. If the southeaster is blowing, they will make their turn over the farming areas of Riebeeck Kasteel and Riebeeck West to the north-east of Malmesbury. When the plane’s wings are tilted for the turn, it allows one the clearest of views of breathtaking patterns of the wheat- and canola lands of the Swartland. The western Cape is a winter-rain area and the lush greenness of the fields are a refreshing break from the bleak winter patterns to the north. Scattered among these green stretches are often bright yellow tracts of canola in flower – spellbinding stuff.
Because I use text in most of my artworks, I began to think of how it might look if I could get the farmers below to plant the canola crop to form a few a simple words. For months everything would appear green from high up in the sky, but at a certain stage, when the canola crop is in flower, bright yellow letters would emerge as if by some miraculous alien interference. The earth would then indeed have a voice.
In 2011 I located the farm directly under the turning point. Jackie and Michael Solomon were gracious in understanding, especially when I suggested that we allow the earth to say what I think she really wants to say: “piss-off!”
The idea was to make the work as large as possible in keeping with the distance away from the planes turning in the sky. I planned to ‘write’ the “piss-off!” reproach at least a kilometre long. Although this was quite achievable, the financial implications proved to be too much for my fundraising skills and the idea of crop seedings is now in hibernation.
Because I spend a few months every year at the University of the Free State, I revived the idea for a different format suitable to the city of Bloemfontein. In 2013 I spoke to the students of the art school and suggested that we implement the project by burning the ‘piss-off!’ text on one of the hillsides facing the city. The event was to take place on winter solstice day (June 21). The Museum of African Art of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington heard about the project and they were keen to include a video of the burning event on their 2013 EARTH MATTERS exhibition. They even wrote about it in the EARTH MATTERS catalogue. The administration of my university also heard about the project and they pledged the help of their public relations department who brought in a company who specialised in organising public events. The project came to a halt when attempts to obtain permission from the metropolitan council proved ineffective.
Due to limited resources further efforts to set up the project in the sand dunes of the Kalahari also proved logistically fruitless.
Early in 2014 I mentioned the project to Katie du Toit, one of my master students at the University of the Free State and she immediately offered her home and farm in the Karoo.
I knew about the debacle regarding fracking and the sensitive Karoo environment, and I thought if ever the earth should be allowed to say something, it ought to be in the centre of this beleaguered region.
The site on her farm is remote, away from any recent human activity. It is next to an old disused earthen wall once meant to dam up the small stream that flows through the area. The dam silted up and left a flat and dry field void of plants, ideal for the layout and harmless staging of EARTH SIGNAL.
Surrounding the chosen site are a series of unusual stony outcrops. The block-like rocks are absolutely remarkable and look as if some prehistoric event had stacked them in well-planned edifices. On the dark rock faces are numerous spectacular prehistoric stone engravings. Millions of stone age implements litter the sandy soil around the rocky outcrops and to the side of our installation. Dramatically perched on top of a huge rock was a lithophone, a prehistoric stone gong on which ancient tell-tale banging marks are still clearly visible.
Great care was taken to instruct everyone involved, especially the students, not to disturb the rocks and veld and not to remove any artifacts or plant matter from the area.
Staging EARTH SIGNAL in September 2014, in the heart of the Karoo, proved most successful and I hope that this will lay the groundwork for a similar happening elsewhere and that I shall be able to find the resources and funding to launch it.