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Writing in the sand

  • My artwork, WRITING IN THE SAND pays respect to South Africa's newly recognised official languages of Sesotho sa Leboa, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu. These indigenous tongues have been spoken for hundreds of years but were marginalised and disenfranchised under European rule. Today, in post-apartheid South Africa, we mistakenly believe that these languages are no longer under siege - that their place in our new constitution is a guarantee for their survival.


    The homage rendered by WRITING IN THE SAND to South Africa's survivor languages is a precarious one. The advent of European influence in our land has already witnessed, if not indeed brought about, the extinction or near demise of smaller languages like San, Khoisan, Khoekhoen, Nama and Griqua. I write in the sand because it is an unstable medium and is easily disturbed. Writing in sandy places is easily damaged and extirpated by water and wind. My work deals primarily with this loss. It points at an abject extinction of a people's collective myth when they no longer share it by word of mouth. It also hints at the fugitive nature of information in cyberspace and the loss of smaller languages due to the dominance of superlanguages in their all-out attempt to be heard clearly in a world where everyone tries to shout at their loudest.


    It might be very noble to reason that the nebulous mists where we exchange our ideas in the networks of computer technology and the mass media bring us closer together and help us to become one with the rest of the human race. The problem is that this 'holding of hands' always occurs to the advantage of the larger linguistically unified populations. This argument is complicated by the fact that the big unicultural and unilingual groups do not understand themselves to be a threat - in fact they are keen to see themselves as saving the rest of humanity. Their blessing to the underprivileged is rather simplistic and is often subject to rules laid down by themselves. Even when dominant tongues, like for example English, French, German and Spanish, are posed in competition, some participants like the French or Germans often protest when they fear a take-over from the English. In the great linguistic squabble the smaller language groups of the world dwindle until they no longer exist and it is generally predicted that we may have only a few major languages remaining in a century's time.


    Language is a precious thing. Our mother only begins to give birth to us by bringing our physical body into the world. Thereafter she and other mentors close to us give birth to our customs, culture and religion, and most importantly, to our language. We speak for very good reason of a 'mother tongue'. A comforting cloak of language covers us within our respective groups. It unites and divides us. It heartens and enrages us.


    When we share our mother tongue with others who also speak it, we can be as poetic, as comprehensive, as spell-binding and as persuasive as the best of speakers in any of the world's major languages. The passion and ease of sharing with his own Zulu people once enabled Dr. Mangosuthu Buthelezi to speak for a number of days in front of an appreciative home audience, in the process breaking the world record for the longest speech. In languages that have an oral tradition the precepts and myths need to be retold countless times to ensure that they are not lost. In this way close community bonds are forged. In a written tradition important things are committed to books and less emphasis is on direct sharing. Writers like Shakespeare and Goethe might rule supreme when it comes to the tradition of written text, but their texts are based on what they have learned from the speech of people who share in the common humanity.


    When the social fabric is ruined for languages rooted in speech rather than text, the common myth and legend together with their shared culture begin to disappear. For the past few hundred years the European languages of English and Afrikaans have dominated the printed and spoken matter in academic and official circles in South Africa. This, together with the policies of apartheid and forced removal, had a stifling effect on our indigenous languages. Peoples only proficient in an oral tradition were terribly disadvantaged because they were unfamiliar with written demands and contracts. In many instances they were driven from their homes and removed against their will to places where it was impossible for them to subsist physically and culturally. In a mad scramble for land and power, the speakers of European languages had and often still have an unfair advantage in places of study, affairs of state, the media and the workplace.


    In WRITING IN THE SAND I wish to reverse the dominance and power of privileged tongues. For this purpose, I have written a somewhat subversive dictionary entitled -OLOGIES AND -ISMS. It consists of abstruse English words, -ologies and -isms, that reflect on things that we study at academic institutions and that fascinate us in the course of accumulating information - things worth knowing. I have chosen terms that are obscure and difficult to the very best of English speakers. My dictionary includes curious items, as for example 'pognology' - the study of beards, useful terms like 'concettism' - the art to appear intelligent without actually saying much, and absurdities like 'bruxism' - the tendency to grind one's teeth or 'carphology' - an inordinate obsession to fondle one's pajamas. These abstruse terms are selected to perplex and confuse the English intelligentsia. Privileged English speakers, used to dictate and patronise those in the 'lesser' language groups, become frustrated by WRITING IN THE SAND because they cannot identify the difficult words in their own tongue and the explanations are given in a tongue they do not know. Their frustration is only relieved when a speaker of a 'lesser' language comes to their rescue. The extraordinary explanation is calculated to bring a smile to the face and to engender further conversation. Speakers of indigenous languages have at least one advantage over English speakers. The Zulu speaker, for example, usually knows how to speak and read English in addition to Zulu, but it is extremely rare to find an English speaker who can speak or read Zulu. In my work, the Zulu is able to patronise and indulge the helpless English speaker. This informal 'entente cordiale' creates a chance for people who are unlikely to talk to one another to share things in an amicable way.

    The silicone chip of the computer is the basis for storing and processing information. Silicone is the main constituent of fickle sand and it is fitting that the information on a computer is fleeting and transient - as easily manipulated and obliterated as sand. A perverse poetic justice will be served when, at the end of the Havanna Biennale, the WRITING IN THE SAND will be swept out. In an act of sublime palimpsest the floor will be clean again - a delete button that has been pressed!

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