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Mixed Media Installation

Index of B(r)eachings



    * is an exhibition of substances and processes used by diviners and healers such as shamans, druids, babaláwos and sangomas

    * is a three-dimensional dictionary with the ‘pages’ laid out as rectangles on the floor and walls and with ‘readers’ walking around inside a ‘book’

    * presents the nomenclature of documented practises of divination in Europe and Africa, an undertaking that can be expanded to include other parts of the world

    * offers a valid technology that uses chance effects to evoke meditation and understanding

    * looks at ways of interpreting artworks and music in a divergent manner

    * is a project in progress and is subject to refinement, expansion and change

    * has been exhibited to good effect at MuseMAfrica, Johannesburg, as part of the Urban Futures exposition in 2000

    * Has won the Aardklop 2000 award at the Aardklop arts festival in the university city of Potchefstroom

    * is the brainchild of artist Willem Boshoff who has included aleatoric (incidence interacting with coincidence) practises in his lifestyle and art making since 1972 and who has written dictionaries since 1977



    An installatioin consisting of 90 exhibits of mixed media such as live animals, animal entrails and body parts, plants, smoke, liquids, soils, diagrams etc.


    1. 1999 Completion of ‘Dictionary of Divination’, a research document by Willem Boshoff

    2. 2000 Installation as part of URBAN FUTURES exhibition at MuseuMAfrica, Johannesburg

    Artist, project leader and copyright: Willem Boshoff

    Research assistant:  Maja Pfeiffer (Marx);

    Technical assistants: Dylan Graham, Cobus Haupt, Asha Roux

    Interactive CD: Professor Rory Doepel, University of the Witwatersrand

    3. 2000 Installation at Aardklop 2000, Potchefstroom, wins Aardvark Award, the festival prize

    4. 2008 New installation in progress

    Artist, project leader and copyright: Willem Boshoff

    Further research and conceptual input: Miranthe van Staden

    Search for exhibition venue/s and cooperation with fellow researchers

    Awaits support to publish the project in book form or on the internet


    This installation reflects on the divination practices of Europe and Africa. It pays respect to the secrets of well established cultural practices. The ongoing project is a three-dimensional ‘index’ or dictionary of divination.

    Due to the sensitive and sacred nature of many of the divination customs, the emphasis is on raw materials and general ideas and not on the revealing of truth. On the floor is laid out various unprocessed substances and objects used by diviners and on the walls fleeting images of mental activity are alluded to.

    The ambiguity of (b)reachings in the title points to attempts by diviners to read and interpret omens and signs beyond things we normally perceive, but it also hopes to expose a sense, either of transgressing against, or of common agreement in, the rites and social territory extant in the ancient and modern histories of Europe and Africa. People of European descent find it increasingly important to look at Africa to rediscover aspects of their western history lost in time. In as much as the distant prehistory of European and African societies display strong similarities, we stand to benefit from exploring the relative connections. Mutual progress depends wholly on recognising such shared interests and capabilities.

    The mistaken belief is that divination in Africa is of fearful, grisly and barbaric nature. However, most of the crude and ‘offensive’ substances in INDEX OF (B)REACHINGS hail from Europe and were in use for a long time. Written accounts of the nature of divination in Europe are very graphic. The scorched donkey’s head sprinkled with flour (cephaleonomancy), was still used in Germany at the end of the nineteenth century! Some of the more pristine, geometric work on the walls might often be thought to be European, but many African civilisations have complex mantic systems of which the configurations of pattern and structure require sophisticated skills of decipherment.

    Art historians and critics require well-developed skills to interpret art objects and images in a meaningful manner. They grasp for meaning in the visual elements of line, form, texture, light and colour. The mostly rectangular matrix of drawing and painting is the window through which they understand aspects of the human condition and the individual psyche. The diviner also occupies a position of social responsibility and conscience. Observations are made from the selfsame visual elements – but mostly arranged in a somewhat circular, rather than rectangular, format.

    Divination is contrived by two main methods. The inductive method is that of observing visual effects that are displayed in a random manner and the intuitive method is that in which the diviner enters into a trance state. Some might refer to this as an entering into the collective subconscious. Intuitive expression forms the backbone of the more expressive and cathartic forms of fine art.

    In the fine art and music of today inductive methods of observation and composition are referred to as a stochastic or aleatoric methods. In divination the aleatoric design forms an entry point into, and an interpretation and understanding of, what lies beyond – in Latin an aleatorius is a ‘dice-player’. The paradox of these apparently ‘haphazard orders’ is, like the orderly Hindu mandala, a gate or door through which higher states of consciousness are attained. I have researched numerous ways in which ‘readings’ of such coincidental effects are taken in divination as well as in the fine arts. Levy-Strauss refers to coincidence in configurations as the contingent of the co-incidental and the incidental. Such coincidental orientations were (and still are) used, especially in pre-alphabetic societies. Some of these methods of composition survive, often in so-called “educated” company of today, but it must be remembered that diviners are also highly ‘literate’ and educated in their field.

    Jean Arp (1887-1966) established new appreciation of the importance of the aleatoric composition in high art, beginning with his work ‘Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance’ (1916). The use of ‘chance’ in avant garde music, of for example John Cage (1912-1992), is well documented. Mark Boyle (b. 1934) uses belomancy when he selects locations for his artworks by throwing darts at detailed maps.

    I trust that this archival exhibit will highlight the overlap between aleatoric insights of Africa and those of Europe, and that it will engender an appreciation of the diverse ways in which random design may be used in the fine arts.





    The name INDEX OF (B)REACHINGS plays with the words ‘breachings’ and ‘reachings’. The diviner looks intently at a matrix of objects or substances, usually scattered about on the ground. He or she attempts to read into and interpret omens and signs from the configuration of things we perceive as commonplace – sprinkled salt, bees going in and out of a bee hive, scattered bones or a bird pecking at corn. The seer makes observations from the proximities and angles at which the objects are positioned or from the way design elements feature. Conclusions are ‘reached’ from relationships within the observed positions, from time lapses, light, proximities and trajectories. This first stage of inspection or ‘reachings’ is logically derived from the given abstract and deals with technical possibilities. At this stage observations are empirical and take place on the left (male) side of the brain. At a certain stage the diviner receives dramatic insight/s and goes through a kind of eureka! period. The information shifts to the right side of the brain where it becomes the observed constructs begin to ‘make sense’ in a new, subverted context. The diviner has ‘breached’ the enigma laid before him or her and can now decide how to communicate the insights or not. André Croucamp, a South African exponent of divination technology, compares the mental process of ‘breaching’ the diviner’s matrix to that which occurs when a good joke is told. At first, the details of the joke are understood in their dry factualness on the left side of the brain. No-one is laughing and story is observed with dry skepticism. When it comes to the punch line, the information shifts from the cognitive left to the right side of the brain with striking impact. An illogical twist occurs and the stream of information is disrupted from logical computation on the left. Those listening to the joke experience a diversion of current resulting in remarkable intuition on the right side of the brain. This short circuit causes laughter when the facts of the joke are ‘breached’ and converted into sudden incredulity and extraordinary quirkiness.







    INDEX OF (B)REACHINGS is a three-dimensional dictionary, so large that one can walk around in its ‘pages’. The installation is the result of careful research and of Willem Boshoff’s writing of a ‘Dictionary of Divination’, stage one completed in 1999 with later additions and stages envisaged. Although this dictionary was prepared as a normal book, its ‘publication’ – making it public – was contrived to be in an art gallery or museum, as an installation.


    Two processes of discovering obscure or future information by extraordinary means are recognised in divination technology – the intuitive process that speaks of altered states of consciousness as attained in a trance, dream or vision and the inductive process that relies on the examination of random configurations such as scattered bones or patterns formed by the spread of items like reflections and stars. Very often diviners rely on a combination of these two processes.



    Inductive and intuitive processes are recognised in INDEX OF (B)REACHINGS – the intuitive process features mainly in the displays on the walls and the inductive process mainly in the displays on the floor.


    Metal grids and bricks are installed for safety reasons. They also constitute  an aesthetic and philosophic grid. The bricks lend a sense of sequence, set in a formal order, like the pages in a book. The metal grids are divices of location, like latitudinal and longitudinal lines on a map or graticules within optical instruments. In this way the grids allude to the fact that the diviner looks for guide-lines by which to navigate and locate aspects of insight and truth.





    The wall pieces are all the same format (60cm wide and 91cm high). They consist of white, occasionally black, backboards often with sheets of transparent Pexiglass aligned exactly in front and bolted down on diffent levels by means of small identical spacers that conceal the bolts. The thicknesses of the wall pieces vary from 6mm. where there is no layering to 200mm. where the layering is at its thickest.


    This layering of the superimposed sheets alludes to shifts in levels of consciousness a diviner needs to (b)reach in order to perform his or her craft. To achieve this end items that inspire deeper insight are floated on Plexiglas, to exist in mid-air – in an ‘ethereal’ world. The objects and marks are predominantly monochromatic, in tones of black, white, grey, reflective chrome or transparent glass and plastic. This helps them appear almost as shadows in themselves. Furthermore, the fact that they float on different levels in front of a background creates different levels of shadows. This ‘not knowing’ where the objects are and where the shadows come from – where they begin and end – makes one grope and search to establish where and what things are - a kind of skiamachy or wrestling with the shadows. In both the Roman and Greek myth, the shades is the darkness of the netherworld, the abode of the dead – and consequently, the shaes are also the spirits of departed ones.


    The diviner reaches beyond, for the removed world of the shades or forefathers or for removed, vague and indistinct levels of awareness. The pursuing mind unravels truth and deciphers numinous values by its intuitive management of the inconstant stimulus confronting it. Intuition is from the Latin intueri ‘to look upon’ and in modern philosophy it is the immediate apprehension of an object by the mind without the intervention of any reasoning process. In divination, reason is negated in favour of an immediate prescient knowing. The act of decipherment and exposition of written text on a page by a literary analyst, or a grappling with and interpretation of intricate elements in a painting contemplated by an art critic, seem to include much reasoning – but to the best interpreter the act of intuiting is effortless, as if the work in question ‘speaks for itself’. Having gained clairvoyant access to this illusive state the clear-sighted interpreter can either benefit the larger society to cope with or understand, for example, social, political or spiritual issues, or can help an individual patient to realise and deal with, for example, his or her own psychological, medical, or even financial problems.







    Floor exhibits are all bonded by rows of bricks. A single brick is 220mm. X 11mm. X 50mm. The outside dimensions of the bricks that frame a single display square on the floor are 4 X 990mm. and the inside dimensions of bricks around a single display square on the floor are 4 X 550mm. A single brick weighs 2.72 kg. (11 bricks weigh 30 kg.). The bricks are of an earthen colour and are heavy enough to prevent accidental dislodging by visitors.


    The works on the floor are set up to imply a relation to the ancestors and their position under the earth. Societies given to worship ‘God’ in the Judaic, Christian or Islamic tradition often fail to understand the place of the ancestors in Africa or of the chthonic gods in ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome. Regard for the ancestors is often confused with ancestor-worship, just as the use of the word ‘god’ is often taken to imply a total surrender of soul. Records of prehistoric belief systems of Europe are very scant, and much of what we understand about them is inferred from archaeological findings. The oldest writings on divination mention the chthonic gods that reside in the underworld – presences that remind strong of the African emphasis on atavism. The chthonic divinity in ancient Greece was a god of the regions under the earth; at first of the dark home of the seed, later on of the still darker home of the dead. The preamble to the ten commandments recognises a ‘danger’ posed by unknown things ‘... in the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth.’



    Traditional diviners of Africa cast ‘the bones’ on the ground so that the ancestors may speak through ‘the bones’ from the nether regions. Headrests are carved in elaborate designs so that they may form a bridge between the back of the head and the ‘place of the under-down’ from where the ancestors converse in dreams and visions. The headrest connects specifically with the atlas bone that links all the nerves from the head with the rest of the body.


    In INDEX OF (B)REACHINGS the tangible substances are plotted along the ground in keeping with the way a diviner might scatter objects on a clearing of earth. All these items, as indeed all the labels, are exposed to an input of the ‘ancestors from below’. To maintain a legible order, such as one would find in the pages of a book, the substances are contained in frameworks of brick, banked into lots of two, each lot set under a rustic foil that forms a grid over it. A series of such lots of two can be adjoined to form a chain of four, six or more lots. The grid of the foil is chosen for three reasons. It is there to protect the work from being disturbed and from hurting overkeen visitors. Secondly, it is meant to affirm the sanctity of the exhibits by somewhat enshrining them. Lastly, it suggests a navigational system, a graticule of longitudinal and latitudinal trajectories that encourages searching and finding.




    I visited Venda and Giyani in northern South Africa in 1998 and called on the artists Meschech Raphalane, Owen and Clifford Ndou, Avashoni Mainganye, Noria Mabasa, Albert Munyai, Hendrik Nekhofe, Johannes Mashwangani and Jackson Hlungwane.


    Albert Munyai was building a large studio at his new home in the hills beyond Thohoyandou and his large drums and xylophones were truly impressive. He had few of his own artworks in stock and after searching through his sheds he hauled out a sculpture from behind his bed – a dark figure eating and feeding ants, carved in leadwood (Combretum imberbe).


    I was immediately intrigued by this enigmatic piece. It shows a man partaking in a meal whilst companiating with rather large ants. To companiate is to share food in a significant way – in Latin com is ‘together’ and panis ‘bread’. We keep company with those we share bread or intimacies with. The figure in Munayi’s work puts out food so a queue of large ants may carry it off to their place of residence under the ground. I wondered over the strangeness of the piece, to me people share large pieces of food with pets or farm animals, but why would anyone keep the intimate company of ants. Munayi deemed it significant enough to chisel such an interactive occurrence in leadwood, South Africa’s hardest wood.


    Munyai’s figure is lounging close to the ground – in the style of Roman or Greek dining known as accubation. In accubation dinner guests posture, lie or sit relaxedly around a low mat or ground cover to enjoy a meal. It was natural for one of the disciples to lean on Christ’s bosom at the last supper because they all dined in accubation. In Latin accubare means ‘to lie near to’ – from cubare ‘to lie’ (to incubate is ‘to lie upon’). The traditional Venda/Tsonga and Sepedi style of accubation is done close to the ground so that dinner guests may have a sense of sharing the meal with those who reside in the earth – with their ancestors – and the ants are seen as mediators who carry messages of salutation and favour between the living and dead.


    Munyai is a respected diviner in the Venda tradition and the sense of and communication with the thangu or ancestors (also respectfully called the ‘big people’) is central to his life. He is a master at throwing the small, rectangular tablets of bone, standard items in the Venda diviner’s kit. These bones are marked with small round spots that indicate numbers and some are notched to point to the female. The Venda name for these bones is thangu, the same word used for ‘ancestors’. One of the exhibits in the INDEX OF (B)REACHINGS project is labelled Thangu.


    Veneration of ancestry in Africa is founded on a chthonic mindset. Chthonic life dwells under earth’s surface – in Greek chthoun is ‘earth’. In the myths of the Greeks and Romans, many deities had a chthonic existence, in the underworld, whilst others went there occasionally. It is often speculated that the Greek chthonic gods have their origins in an earlier Greek sense of ancestry such as still prevails in Africa. An autochthon is someone who belongs to the earth – a son or daughter of the soil. In the 1960’s English Colonial laws were replaced by autochthonous laws that favour government by the natural inhabitants of Africa.


    I am fond of spending my time in cemeteries looking at the make-up of graves, trying to decipher a sense of history from the archive provided by headstones and displays on the grave beds. I especially enjoy looking at the older graves of black people. It was thus that I learned how food and drink, in special little bowls or bottles, are placed on graves amongst other articles such as flowers and stones. In talking to people I learnt that these fulfilled a similar function as the food in Albert Munayi’s Eating with the Ants sculpture. I saw many half-jack’s of brandy posted respectfully on graves by friends or family members toasting the ancestor who lies buried there over the incidence of a marriage, a birth or the victory of a favourite soccer team.


    Munyai is a veritable autochthon, a true child of the soil. He has set up various schemes for protecting indigenous flora around his residential area and he speaks animatedly about caring for nature.  He also refuses to touch a piece of wood in order to make a sculpture unless he has received direct permission and guidance from his ancestors as to its shape, form and meaning.


    In early 1998 I exhibited two artworks in the Kulturhuset complex, Stockholm, Sweden in a show entitled Dreams and Clouds. There were fourteen South African artists on that exhibition and only five or so could make the trip to the opening that was conducted by justice Albie Sachs of the constitutional court of South Africa.


    Albert, also on that show, needed to be with his work and expected to go, but in the end he could not. His piece was a large animal-like shape collaged together from various pieces of wood. When I visited him at his home later that year, not long after the Stockholm exhibition, I told him I saw his work in Sweden and that it was well received and that the exhibition went splendidly. He was most concerned, not at the attention his work may have received, but at whether I could remember if some of the worm holes in his work had opened up. The wood of the piece had lain in Venda soil for quite some years and contained bore holes in which certain insect pupae from the Limpopo province lodged. When the work went to Stockholm he calculated that these pupae would hatch only once the work was back at his studio and he therefore plugged up the holes with a mixture of mud and fat. He thought that he might in any case be reunited with the work in Sweden to check on the insects, the masunzi. They were in direct contact with his beloved thangu and he was quite perturbed at their fate.


    It sounded like a great idea to him to share his good fortune with his thangu by taking the masunzi on a special tour in Sweden. Unfortunately he miscalculated the time the work would be gone. If the masunzi, were to come out of the wood in a foreign land they would obviously be lost. As it is, the work got through customs by some small miracle. I have an idea that in order to make it to Sweden the piece needed to be extensively fumigated to comply with stringent international laws.


    As we spoke Albert made disturbed moaning sounds at the back of his throat and when we discussed the fate of his work I saw real tears brimming in his eyes.


    Today, the Eating with the Ants sculpture forms part of the Sanlam Art Collection, housed in Bellville, Western Cape. The whereabouts of the work that went to Sweden is unknown.


    Willem Boshoff 2008





    • acheiropoietos (images not made by hand)

    • aichmomancy (spinning spear points or bullets)

    • alectryomancy (rooster picking up corn)

    • aleuromancy (flour/barley)

    • alphitomancy (bread)

    • ammomancy (tracks in sand)

    • anthracomancy (boils on the skin)

    • auspication (three doves)

    • axinomancy (three axe heads)

    • belomancy (darts and Johannesburg maps)

    • capnomancy (smoke from incense)

    • catoptromancy (mirrors, glass)

    • cephaleonomancy (burnt donkey’s skull)

    • ceromancy (molten wax)

    • chiromancy (lines of hand)

    • clairguscience (mopani worms/liqurice allsorts)

    • cleidomancy (Zulu bible with key)

    • cleromancy (black blocks, black straws)

    • coscinomancy (shears under sieve)

    • cylicomancy (three wine glasses filled with various beads)

    • daphnomancy (laurel leaves)

    • diwa (two wooden blocks)

    • geloscopy (microphone and light behind wire mesh)

    • genethlialogy (birthdays of prominent African/European thinkers)

    • gyromancy (ring of pins)

    • hakata (split pods)

    • halomancy (salt)

    • haruspication (entrails)

    • hepatoscopy (liver)

    • hieromancy (religious crosses and rosaries)

    • ichthyomancy (fish)

    • ilm al asr~ar (magic squares)

    • iziniyanga ezadhla imphepho (twists of imphepho plant)

    • kaka tikar (baboon spider and straw)

    • kelidomancy (dangling crystals and shiny objects)

    • kiyáfa (anatomical chart of nervous system of body)

    • lampadomancy (floating candles)

    • lecanomancy (bowl filled with oil, basamic vinigar and molten glass)

    • libanomancy (smoke and smell from imphepho)

    • mabubane/astragalomancy (four knucklebones)

    • maculomancy (markings on the skin)

    • margaritomancy (pearls)

    • mbolongo (bowl with bark

    • molybdomancy (molten lead)

    • myomancy (mice)

    • Ndembe basket divination (two baskets with objects

    • ndilo ya lufhali (venda divination bowl)

    • nkanyi (two small, forked marula sticks)

    • oculomancy (anatomical model of eye)

    • œnomancy (two skulls boiled in wine)

    • oma bukula iziniti (dancing sticks)

    • omphalomancy (umbilical cord)

    • oneiromancy (encephalographs)

    • onomatomancy (African and european names with meanings)

    • onychomancy (splintered nails)

    • ophiomancy (snake)

    • osteomancy (various bones)

    • pedomancy (anatomical diagram of sole of foot and ruler)

    • pegomancy (bubbling water)

    • phrenology (skull with top cut off)

    • phyllorhodomancy (rose petals)

    • prosopology (anatomical charts of head)

    • psephomancy (pebbles)

    • psychometry (doll’s clothes and small book)

    • raml/geomancy (sand with lines and small sticks)

    • rhabdomancy (divining rods)

    • scapulimancy (shoulder blades)

    • scatomancy (sheep feaces)

    • spatilomancy (leather scrapings)

    • spodomancy/tephromancy (ash)

    • sternomancy (breastbone of chicken)

    • sycomancy (fig leaves)

    • tasseomancy (two bowls with tea leaves)

    • thanatomancy (black square)

    • thangu (Venda divination dice)

    • theomancy (transparent square)

    • timbamba (four froupings of cowrie shells)

    • tyromancy (cheese)

    • ukuthwasa bone divination/pantomancy (miscellaneous objects)

    • umdabo (chopped up root)

    • urimancy (two stones and silken shirt)



    The descriptions that are placed with their respective images are abbreviated from the original research texts and dictionary to make the information more accessible. It would be exhausting to visitors to read lengthy labels. It is evisaged to include far more lengthy texts with the publication of a book. Such texts may also be provided by a number of select authors.




    Willem Boshoff creates art with living creatures

    2000-09-19 11:52


    Johannesburg - Award-winning artist Willem Boshoff will probably cause quite a stir with his installation Index of (B) reachings, which includes live animals, at the upcoming arts festival, Aardklop, in Potchefstroom. He has been nominated main artists for the festival.


    His art represents the work of a highly creative artist who has a cerebral approach to the medium in search of answers and connections between antiquity and contemporary life.


    Boshoff describes his work as a reflection on the soothsayer's art and divination practises in Europe and Africa.


    In terms of ancient rites, bones, salt and stale bread were used in predicting the future, exposing witches, making peace with neighbours or to establish the gender of an unborn baby.


    He went in search of rites in the ancient and modern histories of the continents to finding a correlation with chance in visual art.

    "Divination practices are not confined to Africa alone. Ancient Western nations, such as the Greeks, also used them. I researched the subject widely over how these practises were performed in other parts of the world. For this particular installation however, I restricted myself to Europe and Africa. In future, I would like to research Eastern divination practises."

    In addition to bones and organic matter, Boshoff also uses live animals like mice, fish, birds and a snake in his art, which takes up the entire floor space of a school hall.


    Boshoff has been invited to show his work in Spain, New York and Cuba later this year.

    - Beeld

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