Updated: Jun 14
Willem Boshoff has been making politicised art for 30 years, and remained true to his anti-apartheid views in a talk at the Tate Modern celebrating African art in London
South African artist Willem Boshoff is not an enigmatic man, but his mind contains so much that you get the constant impression you will never fully grasp what he is speaking about. Do you know what ecdysis means? Or agnoiology? Or contrectation?
His brief talk at the Tate Modern on 14 May chronicled a lifetime of finding words, objects and more and more creative ways to convey his ideas, including his staunch anti-apartheid stance.
Boshoff’s life has been dominated by obsessive and scrupulous collecting, except that it doesn’t come across that way. When he explainedthat he composed a dictionary of obscure words (â€œsaving the English language”) by finding 15 words a day – 10 on Sunday – thus gathering 100 a week, totalling 5,200 a year, and so on, it seems quite reasonable that he did so.
He went on to speak about a few specific artworks from his career, including the work Abamfusa Lawula, or The Purple Shall Govern. The title itself is a pun on the ‘purple rain’ incident, where purple-dyed water used by police to spray protesters so they could be identified and arrested, was turned onto the police by civilians. The piece itself depicts the chants of protesters in African languages, with the English literally ‘between the lines’ beneath. This means English speakers must crouch closely to read the English words, while those familiar with the African languages can stand back and read it easily.
One of the songs on the piece, used regularly during mass-demonstrations and marches, was ‘Kill the Boer’, the struggle song Julius Malema and his followers were banned from singing last year. The phrase recently became the centre of controversy when Khaya Thwala shouted it at protesting members of the ‘Boers in Exile’ during a Freedom Day event in London.
When asked what place he thought this phrase had in society today, Boshoff was as always philosophical and measured. He began by saying that it was â€œagainst the spirit of what the country stands for” and that it is â€œpolarising the society we come from.” He clearly understands the power of words, having spent years composing concrete poetry and other conceptual art pieces based around language, and said, “Words are dangerous.”
A pacifist himself, he still felt that even while more and more white people are fleeing South Africa because they feel they are being victimised, his own response is that people shouldn’t let it affect them. â€œMy feeling is ‘so what?'” he said.
â€œOne has to be strong in one’s own resolve,” he noted, a principle he has certainly carried throughout his life, in the face of religion, conscription, and hegemony. His artworks have stood up for the oppressed in Africa, the blind and disabled, and chronicled massive social injustice, such as the piece depicting the number of days several segregated prisoners spent in Robben Island prison, and the works using flags in reaction to the Iraq war. He said, “I don’t side with anyone, I just make what I see.”
â€œIt’s not as simple as saying people should be jailed,” he said of ‘Kill the Boer’, â€œBut people who sing it should find more insightful ways to sing it.” True to his form, he stands by the importance of freedom of expression, as long as it is justifiably created.