Updated: Sep 23, 2019
A museum curator asks Woolf to answer some questions about her art
1) Tell us a bit about your background as an artist
I still have my first charcoal drawing of a chair which I drew when I was five, and art will always be a part of my life and work. As I grew to be politically and socially aware, I began to use my art as commentary and reflection on issues pertaining to the situation in South Africa and, amongst other things, my family heritage. The meanings of things in the intangible, in shadow, language, numbers, letters and codes are a thread that can be seen throughout my work no matter what the subject matter or diversity in terms of how the art presents itself. I am prepared to use any medium which will communicate the idea I am working with, which is the reason that my art even within one project is presented in so many different ways.
2) Why did you decide to research ‘taxi hand signs’, and what exactly are these signs?
Commuters can be seen using one or another taxi hand signs to gain access in, around or out of Johannesburg. By 2004 I had begun to paint some of the signs, which I saw as a potential art project, not knowing then that this subject would become an intrinsic part my life and work for years to come. As a silent gestural language, which also had narratives associated with each one, they are being used daily by millions of people to signal their required destination to a taxi driver. The signs are an essential means of communication used all over South Africa, yet the actual documentation of this successful language had been overlooked. My 2007 and 2010 booklets of Taxi Hand Signs as well as the Taxi signs being on the SA Commemorative Stamps for 2010, were the first documentations. The Taxi Hand Signs for the Blind book was published in 2009, which presented a new tactile shape language I invented for commuters who are blind.
3) How did you turn this research into art?
How the researched was ethically executed, where and with whom was part of the process and is as much a part of my art as the art itself. How the art is presented in all its various forms and media may be a product of the ideas generated from such research. The act of creating, experimenting, making and discarding is intrinsic to this process and to my art. My research was deepened greatly through the exactness of Anthropology and the creative investigation from the Arts side, when I did a cross-disciplinary Doctor of Philosophy at Wits.
4) In what way do the new abstract works change the parameters for this exhibition?
The surprising and subtle laser prints are all white works and black/white laser prints in relief. Entitled Short Hands, these include the blind shape language and a second new language that describes gesture overall. They are paradoxically a challenge for sighted people who rely on the subtle shadow and light to see the blind shapes. Embodying the same principles, an ArtBook titled The Other Side: Of 30 takes the form of a 3 dimensional installation. Over 50 pages of tactile graphics for people who are blind is spread in ‘concertina’ form and opens up to 30 meters. In this shape, it is for sighted people to enjoy as an art form. People who are blind would have access to it only when folded into book form; however, they would be able to read the book and derive practical knowledge from it. Another new abstract series that continues to investigate the implications of signing as a complex language system is the series The Other Side where I drew essentially from the shapes and directional lines used in the blind shape language. Pathways suggest taxi inroads into the city from every direction. Unlike the work on the WAM exhibition, the subject of the artwork here makes a turn away from gestures as such. Instead, with crowded lettered and numbered beads embedded in paper pulp, it suggests the frenetic taxi transport environment.
5) Tell us about your art being a functional educational tool?
Walkabouts and workshops with visitors, scholars or teachers themselves have been incorporated for years into all my art exhibitions. The exhibition “South African Art to Atlanta, Common & Uncommon Ground”, before and during the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, included a program involving eighteen public schools. Five hundred students per day attended walkabouts. In 1998, the Healing art installation with 1200 rooibos teabags were exhibited in Museum Africa for six months. Teacher participation in day courses were initiated and they could create workshops in their own classes at school.
6) What was different about the education programmes at the SAJM?