Journal Article African Arts Magazine Los Angeles

Updated: Oct 8, 2019

By:  Pamela Allara

Publisher:  African Arts Journal Los Angeles

Published Date:  2018 January 02


Excerpt:

"Under the new administration of Director Gavin Morris, the South African Jewish Museum has expanded its cultural and historical installations to include temporary exhibitions by contemporary artists. For 2016, the museum hosted an ambitious, multimedia exhibition by Johannesburg-based artist Susan Woolf titled “Taxi Hand Signs and a New Shape Language for People Who Are Blind” that presented artworks based on the gestural language used to signal minibus taxi drivers. Because until recently South Africa’s public bus and train services have been inadequate, over the past half century a largely unregulated taxi/ minibus transport sector has developed that operates extensive commuter routes between the townships and inner cities. According to Woolf and J.W Joubert, “apartheid, poverty, and … deficient transport in and around cities, fashioned the explosion that is the taxi industry today” (Woolf and Joubert 2013:284). Simply put, the taxis that clog the city streets are visible evidence of an ongoing economic gap between rich and poor that the advent of democracy in South Africa has yet to close. But taxi hand signs, which commuters use to signal their desired destinations, are also evidence of the resilience and resourcefulness of South African commuters.


Woolf, whose work has addressed South Africa’s fraught history in both her masters and doctoral work, began in 2004 to systematically catalogue the taxi hand signs she observed during her commute by car between her suburban home and her downtown Johannesburg studio. As a white person—an umlungu—it took some determination as well as faith in the goodwill of the citizenry to go into the townships, the taxi ranks, and Johannesburg’s streets to interview drivers, queue marshals, and passengers and to record the individual gestures they were using. By 2007, she used the information she had gathered as the basis of a series of twenty-six brightly-colored gouaches of gloved hands making the individual signs (Fig. 1); that same year, the paintings were reproduced in a “Taxi Hand Signs booklet” that could serve as a reference for those who were unfamiliar with the sign needed for a specific route.1 By the time she completed her doctoral dissertation in 2013, Woolf had identified and documented a total of fifty signs. (The more recent gouaches were shown in the exhibition under review.) As Dr. Molefe Tsele wrote in the forward to the “Taxi Hand Signs” booklet: “South Africa has eleven official languages, but in reality there are twelve. The twelfth is a sign language … the language of commuters” Woolf 2007:n.p.)"



exhibition review


Susan Woolf: Taxi Hand

Signs South African Jewish Museum Cape Town, South Africa

July 10–September 5, 2016

Reviewed by Pamela Allara

Under the new administration of Director Gavin Morris, the South African Jewish Museum has expanded its cultural and historical installations to include temporary exhibitions by contemporary artists. For 2016, the museum hosted an ambitious, multimedia exhibition by Johannesburg-based artist Susan Woolf titled “Taxi Hand Signs and a New Shape Language for People Who Are Blind ” that presented

artworks based on the gestural language used to signal minibus taxi drivers. Because until recently South Africa’s public bus and train services have been inadequate, over the past half century a largely unregulated taxi/ minibus transport sector has developed that operates extensive commuter routes between the townships and inner cities. According to Woolf and J.W Joubert, “apartheid, poverty, and … deficient transport in and around cities, fashioned the explosion that is the taxi industry today” (Woolf and Joubert 2013:284). Simply put, the taxis that clog the city streets are visible evidence of an ongoing economic gap between rich and poor that the advent of democracy in South Africa has yet to close. But taxi hand signs, which commuters use to signal their desired destinations, are also evidence of the resilience and resourcefulness of South African commuters.


Woolf, whose work has addressed South Africa’s fraught history in both her masters and doctoral work, began in 2004 to systematically catalogue the taxi hand signs she observed during her commute