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Site-specific installation in enclosed space (a light-shaft in the centre of the museum)
Media: 1248 labels of extruded acrylic, fishing line, steel cable, bolts in wall
Number of denominations (languages and peoples on labels): 1054
Supplement 1: 2 X 'Martin' automated gobo image projectors
Supplement 2: 2 X 'JBL' stereophonic speakers
Location: Origins Museum, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
Dimensions and layout of artwork: 7m (height) X 3m (width) X 7m (length). There is an open space of 3.5m (height) under the work that allows for pedestrian traffic and the viewing of SIGNS OF PEOPLE as well as other exhibits. SIGNS OF PEOPLE is also viewed from first and second floor windows. A flat roof ceiling allows for diffused light during the day.

Dimensions of viewing window on 1st floor: 3850mm (width) X 1820mm (height)
Dimensions of viewing window on 2nd floor: 1600mm (height) X 1560mm (width)
Installation dates: Friday, 24 February 2006 until Tuesday, 7 March 2006
Maintenance: Small pouches of soft yellow dusters affixed to two thin wooden slats. Labels are gently rubbed between the two pouches. No water, detergents etc. The gobos to be serviced by 'Martin' installations; sound system to be serviced by dedicated company.

Signs of People

  • Exhibition plaque provided by Origins Museum:

    Willem Boshoff is a South African artist whose installations deal with the social use and content of words language and art. In this installation hundreds of terms describe label and identify southern Africa's different peoples - often pejoratively. The nature of the material aptly captures the ephemeral quality of labels used to classify people. The historical fluidity of the terms is also emphasized as the words waft on a breeze. On the lower level of the museum you can hear the words spoken as if in the sound of a raindrop and projected words literally crawl over one, reminding us that even today we are still very much part of a history of labels.



    Central to the Origins Museum is respect and homage for the oldest living people of southern Africa, the Bushmen. Over a period of two or three years I had a number of meetings with Francis Gerard, project manager and some other planners behind the Origins Museum, and I was well familiar with what the museum set out to achieve when I was approached in 2005 to make proposals for an artwork in the central light shaft of the new building. I immediately thought of the Kalahari landscape, traditionally the home of the Bushman and I decided to speak of special moments in their nomadic life.


    My family on my father's side are farmers in the arid land of the Kalahari near the Kagalagadi Transfrontier Park. I visit the region frequently to check on family and to enjoy people, plants and animals. Kalahari people are keenly conscious of the state of the land and they have, above all else, an ardent wish for wholesome rain.


    Rain in the Kalahari, visible against the dark sky as streaks and specks, arrives with the quiet thudding of drops on the dry red sand. Early summer rain in this remote area comes seldom, and when it does, it comes in heavy deluges that cause flooding between the dunes. Soon after the rain two wonderful spectacles fill the air. The first is the flowering of the Driedoring (Rhigozum trichotomum) shrubs. These grey, nondescript bushes of the Begonia family form the staple diet for sheep and antelope in the long, dry season and litter the landscape as far as the eye can see. Their irrigation causes these 'dead' bushes to erupt in an overnight sensation of millions of large thankful white flowers that look like mile upon mile of fluttering butterflies - a sight to stir the poet in the most uncivil amongst us.


    The second spectacle following the torrent of localized rain is that of termites that take to the air from their 'skyscraper' mounds and holes in the ground. In dry times it is hard to spot the white wingless little creatures around their mounds and one might even think that they do not actually exist. Going about their secret underground business in anticipation of the heavy rain, they produce fat, striped winged prodigies called 'alates' to establish new colonies away from the parent mounds.


    When the rains are scarcely gone, these oversized termites have their clocks set to emerge all at the same time to take to the air in great numbers, dazzling and flourishing about clumsily. This floundering prompts children to run excitedly into the veld to catch the beastly little queens-to-be and to play with their downward spiralling wings. The exodus of these ungainly creatures takes place only once in their lives and happens also only once a year in a given area.


    Fleeting raindrops, endless white flowers, the termites and their transitory wings inspired a sense of worship in the Bushman and arouse in me a great love for nature and the Kalahari. I hoped I could communicate some of the awe I feel by my translucent materials suspended in a spectacle of light and air.



    The termites' precarious flight speaks to me of risk and vulnerability - not all of them make it. Winged termites do not fly very far before they lose their wings and fall to the ground. This loss does not mean that they die out, in fact, it assures a sense of survival. In southern Africa we have likewise witnessed the death of a number of languages such as Nama and Griqua. Some others are on the brink of extinction. But the children of those who once spoke the lost languages are not gone. They have become part of other groups, albeit by speaking different languages. SIGNS OF PEOPLE, however, does not favour any denomination over another and certainly does not want to become a playball in the polemic of assimilation versus pluralism.


    Itinerant termites and people venture away from 'home', often to colonize, often to be obliterated. The location of a new home depends on how far our 'wings' can carry us. New arrivals might be received with hostility or kindness. Likewise, the new arrival might regard existing settlements with suspicion or expectation that can bring out the best or the worst. In this quest, old names are asserted and new ones invented in good faith, or pejoratively given to take advantage of the adventitious stranger and the unsuspecting autochthon.


    To show the vulnerability of languages, I have them whispered out from loud speakers in the vicinity of my work. The idea is that they will sound like heavy drops of rain falling randomly on the sand. These drops are either burnt away quickly by the sun or are swamped by the heavy shower following. They are whispered almost as if they are secrets in need of protection. The effect and composition in which the murmured words are spoken were explained to the recording studio (John Petrie, Sonic Factory) in reference to SILENCIAIRE (1969), a composition of percussive 'rain' from by Maurice Ohana (France, 1914-1992). Further motivation to verbalise the many languages was obtained from 'hut songs' and 'humming of the bees' recorded at the Baka Pygmy encampment at Aba near Kongulu village, Cameroon (UNESCO collection - 1975). The Baka Pygmy language is distantly related to Khoisan. Music recorded by Guy Spiller and his team at the Xaixai community of Bushmen, West of Maun, Botswana also played a role.


    Animated words projected in and around in the work are meant to create a restlessness and shifting vision. The projections also serve to provide a sensation of words that crawl over the skin of visitors and finally to draw the attention of visitors on the lower level to the work above their heads.




    SIGNS OF PEOPLE aims to confirm a southern African historical identity that includes pride as well as pain. To do this I tried to draw up a full register of southern African names for people and their languages. Often the language itself is that which denotes a people: Zulu, Xhosa, Venda. Further back these denominations might have an etymological basis: The word Xhosa, for example, is said to be derived from a Khoisan source and means 'angry men'. Sometimes people are known by the activity they best execute: Boer, Khoikhoi - terms meaning 'farmer' and 'shepherd' respectively. Names are also derived from the superficial appearance of groups: Whites, Blacks, Coloureds. Lamentably people often become known by the names used to belittle or hurt them: Kaffer, Soutpiel, Rockspider, Tjarra, Mulungu, Makwerekwere. In my work I try to be as inclusive, with a sense of history of good and bad, of all the people who, today and yesterday, made southern Africa their home. My name list contains people and tongues that are traditionally resident in South Africa: Northern Sotho, Tswana, Ndebele. I also include related languages and people with cross-border ties in neighbouring countries: Shangaan, Damara, Namidama, Shona. It contains newcomers: Indian Afrikaner, English, Portuguese. I try to give the names different people have for each other: The people of Vendaland refer to themselves as Vha-Venda, but the Zulus call them the amaVenda and in Sotho they are the BaVenda. It's all quite mind boggling and in total I have posted 1054 names in SIGNS OF PEOPLE.


    The name Khoisan is itself given in error. Academics love to demonstrate their moral high ground by saying that Khoisan languages are pejoratively often called Hottentot and Bushman languages. Most Khoisan people themselves do not know what Khoisan is and prefer the term Bushman or rather Boesman.


    The hunters of today have no collective name for themselves. They use their own group names, such as Ju/'hoansi (people who live on the border between northern Namibia and Botswana) or Hai//om (people who live around Etosha National Park).


    San = Sanqua = Soaqua was a name given to hunters by the Khoekhoen of the Cape. The word means 'people different from ourselves' and became associated with those without livestock, or people who stole livestock.

    The name 'Bushman', originally 'Bosjesmanneke' or 'Bossiesman' was given to low status people by the Dutch settlers in the 1600's, and referred to those who collected their food off the land and had no domestic animals.


    Khoekhoen = Khoikhoi = Kwena is a general name which the herding people of the Cape used for themselves. The word can be translated to mean 'the real people' or 'men of men', meaning 'we people with domestic animals' as opposed to the Sonqua or Bushmen who had none.


    Khoesaan = Khoisan is a general term which linguists use for the click language of southern Africa. Physical anthropologists use it as a biological term to distinguish the aboriginal people of southern Africa from their black African farming neighbours.


    The Khoisan languages and dialects (Khoesanyms) in Southern Africa are spoken by small ethnic groups, partly having preserved a hunter-gatherer culture. These languages can be subdivided into three families. Genetic relationship between these three families can not be proven yet. Because all the Khoisan languages show clicks sounds as one of their major features, they are grouped together.


    Existing Khoisan (Khoesaan) languages/dialects are classifiable as follows:

    Kxoe: Kxoe, //Ani, Buga, g/Anda
    Naro-g//Ana: Naro, g//Ana, g/Ui, #Haba
    Shua: Cara, Deti, /Xaise, Danisi, Ts'ixa
    Tshwa: Kua, Cua, Tsua

    Southern Khoisan:

    North Khoisan:

    Central Khoisan:
    Khoekhoe: Nama


    Fanagalo, the vernacular Esperanto of southern Africa, is a makeshift language that helps all people in the region to communicate. It was established as a lingua franca between speakers of various languages found in South Africa and was mainly used in mines throughout the country. It can also be viewed as a simplified version of Zulu, Xhosa and related languages with adaptations of modern terms from English, Dutch and Afrikaans. It evolved from contact between European settlers and African people especially in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and later also in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and even Malawi.

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