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The art of taxi hand signals

Updated: Sep 23, 2019

By:  Laurice Taitz

Publisher:  Mail & Guardian

Published Date:  2013 June 28


" Every day thousands of hands stretch out along commuter routes across Gauteng speaking a silent language of taxi gestures. The upraised index finger indicating you are headed to town. The hand turned palm up, the fingers grasping an invisible fruit signify your destination is Orange Farm. These gestures are the framework for a complex system of transport routes. Developed from necessity, and with ingenuity, this silent exchange of signs is the fundamental unit of communication for millions of minibus taxi commuters. Artist Susan Woolf is probably one of the few people who can signal any destination in the province. Petite and blonde, with a pixie-like appearance and a gently charming manner, she is also the least likely to be identified in a line-up as having frequented taxi ranks from Bree Street to Roodepoort. Her exhibition at Wits Art Museum, Taxi Hand Signs: Symbolic Landscapes of Public Culture, is the culmination of nine years of research and artistic production around what has been called South Africa’s “12th official language”. In that time she has documented and deciphered Gauteng’s taxi hand signs and created a remarkable lexicon for blind people to use this mode of transport comfortably. Taxi hand signs are a shared language, learned by imitation and word of mouth. They are basic gestures tied to narrative threads that swirl through community life connecting today with history and folklore. Of course, not everyone using them knows what they signify apart from a place name. To understand their meaning, Woolf conducted interviews with taxi bosses, drivers and commuters. Take the sign for Marabastad — one hand with its fingers grasped together, the other hand performing a slicing motion below it. Woolf found that it was derived from the suspected muti killing of a Marabastad taxi operator: the sign indicates the severing of his testicles. It caused upset, but remains in currency — an efficient signifier of a destination. "

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