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Q&A with Susan

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?

One of the reasons for the daily successful walkabouts and participation of scholars was that the taxi hand signs artworks and languages, which are on the South African National Commemorative Stamps for 2010, were included the curriculum for South African schools for Grade 11 English in 2012. Consequently, the museum helped organise busloads of scholars who visited the exhibition daily. Workshops were also held with both blind and sighted people. They were able to touch and engage with the blind shape language on the 8 meter wall of signs and in the darkroom that had been built in the exhibition space at the Museum. The SAJM themselves have ongoing extensive events and programmes for visitors and scholars to the museum.

7) Were there any workshops that were particularly meaningful?

Last week the art exhibition became the inspiration for Handscapes, a practical art workshop at SAJM run by Sandra Eastwood (MAP Coordinator) and coordinators. Blind people from the Helen Keller Hostel created their own gestures after experiencing the shape language through touch, explanations and drama. This correlates richly with my own research, a part of my doctoral thesis and work 2004 - 2013, to bring the taxi hand sign language to schools for blind children.

A group from the Save Foundation, organised by the museum’s keen and competent Educational Manager Yoav Korn, was an inspirational group of 28 participants, made up of 14 disadvantaged young learners and 14 teenage mentors from abroad. After having participated in the Darkroom with all the tactile blind shapes on the walls and having been taken through the artworks, films and sculptures with shadows, a discussion was held on the 7meter painted installation SIGNIFICATION: Textarea, which is about transmission of messages, movement and communication. Learners were asked to use the paper provided to indicate their route from home to the museum and to include any personal experience along the way.

8) How has Braille been included in the blind shape language?

The tactile Taxi hand signs language for people who are blind have nothing to do with braille, which is an accepted international language in its own right. These are pictures, actually graphic renditions made of 14 simple basic shapes (such as Triangles, elongated rectangles, dots and with added directional lines that show the person which way the hand is moving). The shapes are a solid mass of evenly arranged raised dots. It is the different combinations of these 14 basic shapes, which combine to form the individual taxi hand signs. It remains to be stated unequivocally that hearing is far more important to a blind person that any other form of communication.

9) How did people find out more about this language for blind people?

I worked with Blind SA to ensure that the tactile language best suited people who are blind. Subsequently, in Gauteng, people who are blind were given copies of the Taxi Hand Signs Book for the Blind when it was launched in Museum Africa in 2009. The publishing and printing of these books was made possible by sponsorship from the Leopold Spiegel Foundation, which allowed for the distribution of 1000 of these books. The very first exhibit of these signs were shown in a group exhibition entitled Talk to Me at the MoMA in New York. At WAM and in the SAJM they were enlarged and displayed for all to experience in rough textured vinyl on 8 meters of wall.

10) Do the gestures used in Gauteng relate to other parts of South Africa?

Only a few of the taxi signs in Gauteng are used by Cape Town taxi drivers and commuters, as Cape Town has a different taxi system altogether. However, the blind people to whom I spent time explaining the shape language at the SAJM enjoyed recognising the different gestures and found it amusing that the signs for Orlando Pirates and Kaiser Chiefs were in amongst them! All the universally used signs like half way and going straight, or pointing in different directions, could easily be recognised. Because the 14 basic shapes can also be adapted to make any hand sign, and because the taxi hand signs themselves are a prolific silent gestural language, rich in narrative content and used by millions of commuters, they are valuable as a unique South African innovation. The Short Hands series includes a progression from the basic tactile shapes. With new visual codes for describing all gestures, they are internationally useful both to people who are deaf and to anyone denoting or interpreting a physical gesture.

11) How do you feel about your work being exhibited at the SA Jewish Museum?

It was an experience of note to be singularly supported and welcomed so warmly at the Jewish Museum by Natasha Wood and the museum team. To work with competent and enthusiastic people was a treat I deeply appreciated and will remember going forward. I found the Jewish Museum in Cape Town authentic and interesting. I loved that it is proactive, community driven and welcoming to all. It is run with efficiently and with generosity as children and adults from all sections of the community are encouraged to be there. The director Gavin Morris is ambitious and positive, proactive and constantly open to new concepts that add value to the museum. He open heartedly lend his support to any ideas that would have the artwork exhibited at its very best.

12) Where has your work been exhibited?

I have exhibited in galleries and museums in South Africa from 1992 (Johannesburg and Cape Town mainly). My work has been in exhibitions in Europe and showcased in London. In the United States I have had solo or group exhibitions in Atlanta, Washington, Rhode Island and New York.

13) What is your advice to other aspiring artists?

The most important thing I like to say to other artists is to keep working, keep making art. Experiment. Play. Discard. Research. Think out the box. Observe. Choose a theme, keep at it. Participate. Take a course on something new. Go to exhibitions. Keep Learning. Build a body of work you can show a gallery.

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