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Activism comes in many forms in post-apartheid SA. Most recognisably, there is the protest march: solidarity expressed in speeches and songs and movement. The aim is usually disruption or spectacle, or a combination of both, a drawing of public attention towards a cause. Often, however, this mode of protest is more smoke-and-mirrors than sturm und drang — as with the EFF’s underwhelming “national shutdown” earlier this week.
Then there are the less well advertised activists: whistle-blowers, community organisers, fundraisers. People who feed and teach and build. They are no less brave, no less committed and they outnumber the attention-seekers many times over.
Artists, too, can be loud or quiet in their activism. Some artists declare their political convictions and activist credentials repeatedly and insistently. Some artists simply pursue ways of making work (and of being a citizen) that attempt to intervene constructively in the lives of others, their contributions to the upliftment of individuals and communities all the more substantial because these are not explicitly signalled.
SUSAN WOOLF FALLS INTO THE LATTER CATEGORY. WHEN I VISITED WOOLF AT HER ILLOVO FLAT RECENTLY, SHE TOOK ME EXCITEDLY UP TO THE ROOF OF THE BUILDING, WHERE SHE HAS BEEN GIVEN PERMISSION TO TURN THE ABANDONED OLD “SERVANTS’ QUARTERS” INTO AN EXHIBITION SPACE. THE TRANSFORMATION OF THIS APARTHEID-ERA ARCHITECTURAL QUIRK INTO A PLACE FOR ART IS SIGNIFICANT; MUCH OF WOOLF’S WORK OVER THE YEARS HAS ATTENDED TO QUESTIONS OF HOUSING, LABOUR AND THE IMPACT OF SEGREGATION ON URBAN DESIGN AND TRANSPORT SYSTEMS.
After a number of years working as an art teacher, she established herself on the commercial art scene in the early 1990s with solo exhibitions in Johannesburg and Atlanta. This body of work grew out of the violent final decade of apartheid, focusing on the notorious conditions in migrant workers’ hostels. On the back of this project Woolf was invited by The Carter Presidential Centre in Atlanta to participate in the Cultural Olympiad at the 1996 Olympics; she put together a group exhibition Common and Uncommon Ground, that introduced dozens of SA artists to the US.
Upon her return, she became involved in a low-cost housing initiative in Devland on the outskirts of Soweto. Out of this experience she created “Healing”, a multimedia work consisting of five panels of mounted tea bags — each one representing a community member’s aspiration to own a home — that is now aptly installed in her rooftop exhibition space.
In this period, Woolf also began creating on a larger scale. Her five-storey moving aluminium sculpture, Mobile City, is a feat of engineering in its own right that reflects Johannesburg past and present. (Housed in Absa Towers North building, the design was a collaboration by Lewis Levin, Paul Cawood and Susan Woolf). Urban utopia and dystopia are held in suspense, a vision that hints at Joburg’s subterranean depths and vertiginous heights.
In stark contrast to this enormous, heavy and robust piece, Woolf has also turned her hand to the fragile medium of paper — from delicate and intricate art books to the concertina-style office paper associated with dot-matrix printers. In Mapping Generations (2003), she used thousands of chequebook stubs to create a symbolic family archive. This Herculean labour both encapsulates Woolf’s research into almost three centuries of her ancestry and pursues the mystical mathematics of Jewish tradition.
There is something similarly esoteric in Woolf’s fascination with other aspects of semiotics — that is, with the ways in which we employ and interpret signs and symbols. Her shadow sculptures explore the idiosyncrasies of shorthand and the ambiguous associations of “ubuntu”. The work for which she is best known emerges from her study of a non-verbal communicative system: taxi hand signs.
This was the subject of Woolf’s doctoral degree at Wits University, a project that extended in various directions. It was more than an anthropological documentation of a widely used but only partially codified language. She also produced a taxi hand sign “alphabet” for blind commuters, turning gestures into tactile forms and even producing a series of stamps embossed with Braille.
As Woolf walked me through more than four decades of her creative output, I was struck by the range and depth of this artist’s oeuvre. The time is ripe for a retrospective exhibition of her work.
Woolf’s Taxi Stamp set was voted one of Top 10 Most Important Stamps for 2010, by Stamp News . com
African Arts Journal exhibition review:
Taxi Hand Signs - South African Jewish Museum Cape Town, South Africa
July 10–September 5, 2016
Reviewed by Pamela Allara
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