Susan Woolf. About The Artist
The emergence of taxi hand signs, the use of which is concentrated in Gauteng, is linked inextricably to a part of black urban existence and the pain of a history of injustice. Today, many people can be seen using taxi hand signs to gain access in, around or out of the city. They signal on streets and pavements and in taxi ranks, in rural and urban areas alike all over South Africa . While this successful, silent, inclusive and positive means of communication between commuters and taxi drivers is so prevalent, the actual documentation of it has till now mostly been overlooked.
Susan Woolf is a professional artist who has used her career in art to communicate and challenge. She began to document the taxi hand signs used by commuters in 2004, As she saw them enacted on the streets of Johannesburg. Conscious of her position as an ‘outsider’, knowing that people whose daily lives incorporate taxi hand signs for practical and life sustaining purposes will have substantially different narrations, Woolf was meticulous in recording her research for historical use. In researching the signs, she met with commuters and taxi drivers in taxi ranks, in townships, with taxi associations and on the streets. Her investigation revealed the potency of these gestures especially because the narratives that formed their shape and content reflected the environment locally and cultures specific to South Africa. Woolf’s resultant paintings (today of over fifty signs) of recognisable coloured gloves enables prejudice-free commuter communication for people of diverse races, cultures, classes and languages.
It was noticeable too that many people who are blind use taxi hand signs to hail a taxi. This encouraged Woolf to invent a simple tactile shape language, an easily learned tool for people who are blind to accurately gesture the taxi sign needed to show taxi drivers the desired destinations. There is no need to know Braille, except for reading the destinations. The graphic shapes themselves are neither connected to nor conceived of as an extension of Braille. Instead, 14 graphic and tactile forms combine to make up this pictorial language.
The blind shape language presents differently to the paintings of coloured gloves that represent the taxi signs for sighted people. Both, however, are purposefully recognisable and symbolic, simplified for clear-cut communication. It was in 2007 that a very small edition of Woolf’s first book of Taxi Hand Signs and their corresponding destinations was published. It included the tactile signs, which could be accessed by people who are blind. It was increasingly obvious that Woolf’s work encompassed a completely new body of undocumented knowledge. It, became her subject of investigation when she enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) in 2009 to take on a Doctor of Philosophy through Art and Anthropology.
Her book Taxi Hand Signs for the Blind was launched in Museum Africa (2009). The shape language and her contact with people who are blind deepening her awareness of ‘seeing’ and engaging the ‘other’. The story of the taxi hand signs and stamps have been included as a work exercise in the Platinum English First Additional English Grade 11, South Africa in 2010 [Reprint 2013], published by Maskew Miller Longman.
Woolf then used her various research modalities and exhibitions as visual and tactile experiences that invited sighted viewers to engage with the potentiality of ‘seeing’ and experiencing what people who are blind perceive through touch. Her Taxi Hand Signs together with the Blind Shapes were chosen by the S. A. Post Office for The South African National Commemorative Stamp in 2010, launched together with the second Taxi Hand Signs booklet publication, at the Standard Bank Art Gallery. In 2011, the signs created for the Blind, with their own visceral and tactile qualities, were exhibited in a group exhibition on communication entitled Talk to Me, at the Museum of Modern Art [MoMa] in New York. In 2013 she held a multi-media exhibition at the Wits Art Museum [WAM] .Also on display was the Dictionary GRID artwork, which is a compilation of forty of the gouache paintings of gloved taxi hand gestures. It portrays, for people who are blind, how each gloved sign evolves into a unique symbol compiled from the 14 tactile shapes. This work represents a culmination of the previous years of research since 2004 that it took to find the hand signs, connect them with their destinations and discover the political or historical, geographical narrative associated with each. Her personal endeavors through her art exposed the essentially rich and vital socio-political narratives of taxi hand signs and their value as a part of South African culture. Woolf graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand with a Doctor of Philosophy. Taxi hand signs could now take their place in documented history.
The 2016 multi-layered exhibition at the South African Jewish Museum magnifies the expected limits of what the silent, inclusive taxi hand signs mean as reference in terms of culture and history in Gauteng, and as practiced all over South Africa. While retaining the basic elements of the 2013 exhibition at WAM, the South African Jewish Museum exhibition shows both Woolf’s preceding and new artwork - including abstractions from the blind shape language - to demonstrate the essence of communication through symbolic coding to sighted people. These works are a natural extension of previous sculptural works where texts and coded language reflect in shadow. On exhibition are two examples, an indoor installation Table of Contents , can be read on the floor in Shorthand, challenging the viewer to properly see ‘others’ beyond the initial impression. In Witness: Shadow of Ubuntu (2008), the shadow projected from the abstract sculptured shapes make up the word Ubuntu at a specific time in the day. The Short Hands series, with new codes for gesturing, is a progression from this. Woolf designed this coding as a means of describing gestures in textual form. She shows how art, when presented in unexpected forms, may alter perceptions in ways that challenge the viewer.
These and other new handmade artworks and relief prints reflect on symbols used within the shape language to inform on city and environment while using the blind shape language to do so. Take for example the directional lines in the shape language, which indicate that the hand is moving. In the four artworks titled Pathways, directional lines suggest movement and direction within a ‘possible’ city space, once again revealing how closely her concepts from previous sculptural works derive, advancing as they do the notions of ‘other’ and ‘seeing’ and pursuing her expressions of language, coding and shadow. The 2016 multi-layered exhibition at the South African Jewish Museum, depending on what the participant is viewing or touching, can be distilled into parts that are insubstantial, subtle, psychological, coded, visual, tactile, dense, colourful and substantial.
The graphic tactile shape language for blind people on the wall consists of over fifty black taxi hand signs, laser cut in heavy-duty vinyl. These are intended for both sighted and blind people to experience and are a combination of fourteen basic forms, which combine with each other to make up each taxi sign. Where there is movement involved in the signing, directional lines are used.
As the visitors to the Museum descend the broad steps down into the atrium, they may walk across the 7 meters of red blind shapes on the floor, leading into a darkened room constructed in the exhibition space. It is in moments like this, in the dark space, where those who can see must activate their memory and feel the textured shapes, while relying on an an individual who is blind to be their guide. In the darkness, while endeavoring to discover meaning with the blind codes, there is a certain disquiet; a place for humility and respect for the other person, who may under different circumstances otherwise be seen but not always acknowledged. Such shifting of power was inspired by Willem Boshoff’s Blind Alphabet (1990-1995). (Woolf was the Project Director, together with artist Lesley Price and curator Steven Sack, of the exhibition South African Art to Atlanta: Common and Uncommon Ground during the Atlanta cultural Olympiad in 1996.
Within the exhibition, three short films are playing, the latter two connected.
The film taken inside Bree Street Metro Mall is projected onto the floor. The intention was to selectively shoot and record in the taxi rank in order to exemplify a vibrant functional South African taxi transport environment and to show the commuter’s responses to engagement on the subject of taxi hand signs. The site of the film on the floor is intentionally chosen so that viewers can walk on the looping projection and, in a way, feel a part of the busy taxi rank.
Projected onto a wall, however, are the latter two four-minute films, which are a compilation of carefully selected footage drawn from all the documentary research films shot in the taxi ranks and during semi-structured interviews. The two short films are titled: Isindlela Zamagundwane. Taxi hand signs, in the landscape of little mice and Isindlela Zamagundwane. Taxi hand signs, blind in the landscape of little mice. The titles of the films introduce the landscape or context within which taxi drivers and commuters operate. The Landscape of Little Mice draws attention to the generally casual and spontaneous actions of minibus taxi drivers who deviate on the spur of the moment from planned routes. Blind in the Landscape of Little Mice shows a person who is blind who, like many people who do not have transport, use taxi hand signs to summon a taxi.
Artworks from The Other Side series on the taxi landscape allude to what it is to communicate with signs. These textured works, with numbered and lettered beads on hand made paper, employs the same simple shapes of the dot, triangle, square, oblong and directional lines to project and communicate more succinctly the highly charged taxi transport environment to which the taxi hand signs are intricately linked.
With the concept of her +7m mural, SIGNIFICATION Textarea, Woolf takes a different turn. The artwork is an abstraction that reflects the overall act of taxi signification and messaging. Throughout this artwork it is clear that what is left out is more important than what can be seen. Like the silence of a pause in music music, vastness of spaces are recognised by what is visually omitted, making space for movement and transferal. Implied movement over time is a part of the conceptual vision; the artwork encourages the eye of the viewer to scan from one focal point in the work to the next. The movement of the eye across spaces of symbolic landscapes and reflections of structures and streets is equivalent to following a message as it transfers from commuter to driver. The word ‘Textarea’, as Woolf herself describes, is indicative of the return route when weaving thread across the weft of a loom. It also speaks about a mental continuum and messaging, because one must turn things upside-down and think laterally to tell one’s story.
Woolf’s latest Art Book (Figure x Pg x), has been created over a period of several months at Blind SA. The book unfolds much like a concertina to 30 meters in length. A visually enticing and tactile composite of millions of tiny dots make up each very much enlarged taxi hand sign shape.
This exhibition brings into focus the taxi hand sign phenomenon that is entrenched in South African culture. It is a tribute to the unidentified people who have contributed to the informal system of communication towards taxi transport; it demonstrates a deep appreciation of the narrative content linking gestures to certain areas and bringing to life social commentary on living conditions, or records of past events. In the exhibition, Woolf addresses both people who are sighted and people who are blind. She seeks to challenge perceptions of ‘other’, through her series The Other Side and through language and codes in her all white work Short Hands.
Follow me on Instagram @susanwoolf_artist