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Media:  Edition Print

Paper: German etching paper

Edition Number: 1/40

Size: 405mm x 405mm

Created: 29 Sept 2009


Shape language for blind people 1 and 2

A tactile taxi hand signal ‘language’ for blind people designed by Woolf is seen in two limited edition prints. Fourteen basic tactile shapes combine to form all the taxi hand signs for blind people to read. They are tactile TRIANGULAR, CIRCULAR, OBLONG, LINEAR shapes. By combining them in various ways they make up all the individual taxi hand signs. Sighted people can also use the regular taxi book in conjunction with the blind taxi book to explain how combining 14 Basic shapes result in the various taxi hand signs.


The 14 shapes are as follows:
• The TRIANGLE with the DOT beneath it are co-joined and remain one entity.
The TRIANGLE represents the palm of the hand. The DOT represents the WRIST.
When the DOT is at the top of the triangle it means that the hand is pointing downwards. When the DOT is below the TRIANGLE the hand is pointing upwards. When the DOT is to the left or right of the TRIANGLE the hand is pointing sideways.
QUARTER CIRCLE (smaller): Represents the Hand FACING to the FRONT .
• LONG OBLONG STICKS are the number of fingers VISIBLE.
They point up, down, left and right. Fingers not used for a hand sign are simply not shown. BENT LONG OBLONG STICKS: Long stick shapes shown bent in the centre represent the fingers of a cupped hand OR one individual bent finger may form a circle as it touches the thumb or another finger. SHORTENED STICKS: Fingers that are shortened represent a fisted hand.
• ARROW: The pointing finger always has a small triangular arrow tip. This arrow tip indicates which direction the hand is pointing. Sometimes when the arrow is parallel with the floor, it is pointing backwards..
• THUMB: Short Oblong with thickened end represents the Thumb



THS. Shape Language for Blind People

  • Taxi Hand Signs

    Art Exhibition by Susan Woolf at the South African Jewish Museum.


    The emergence of taxi hand signs, the use of which is concentrated in Gauteng, is linked inextricably to a part of black urban existence and the pain of a history of injustice. Today, many people can be seen using taxi hand signs to gain access in, around or out of the city. They signal on streets and pavements and in taxi ranks, in rural and urban areas alike all over South Africa . While this successful, silent, inclusive and positive means of communication between commuters and taxi drivers is so prevalent, the actual documentation of it has till now mostly been overlooked.


    Susan Woolf is a professional artist who has used her career in art to communicate and challenge. She began to document the taxi hand signs used by commuters in 2004, As she saw them enacted on the streets of Johannesburg. Conscious of her position as an ‘outsider’, knowing that people whose daily lives incorporate taxi hand signs for practical and life sustaining purposes will have substantially different narrations, Woolf was meticulous in recording her research for historical use. In researching the signs, she met with commuters and taxi drivers in taxi ranks, in townships, with taxi associations and on the streets. Her investigation revealed the potency of these gestures especially because the narratives that formed their shape and content reflected the environment locally and cultures specific to South Africa. Woolf’s resultant paintings (today of over fifty signs) of recognisable coloured gloves enables prejudice-free commuter communication for people of diverse races, cultures, classes and languages.


    It was noticeable too that many people who are blind use taxi hand signs to hail a taxi. This encouraged Woolf to invent a simple tactile shape language, an easily learned tool for people who are blind to accurately gesture the taxi sign needed to show taxi drivers the desired destinations. There is no need to know Braille, except for reading the destinations. The graphic shapes themselves are neither connected to nor conceived of as an extension of Braille. Instead, 14 graphic and tactile forms combine to make up this pictorial language.


    The blind shape language presents differently to the paintings of coloured gloves that represent the taxi signs for sighted people. Both, however, are purposefully recognisable and symbolic, simplified for clear-cut communication. It was in 2007 that a very small edition of Woolf’s first book of Taxi Hand Signs and their corresponding destinations was published. It included the tactile signs, which could be accessed by people who are blind. It was increasingly obvious that Woolf’s work encompassed a completely new body of undocumented knowledge. It, became her subject of investigation when she enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) in 2009 to take on a Doctor of Philosophy through Art and Anthropology. Her book Taxi Hand Signs for the Blind was launched in Museum Africa (2009). The shape language and her contact with people who are blind deepening her awareness of ‘seeing’ and engaging the ‘other’. The story of the taxi hand signs and stamps have been included as a work exercise in the Platinum English First Additional English Grade 11, South Africa in 2010 [Reprint 2013], published by Maskew Miller Longman.


    Woolf then used her various research modalities and exhibitions as visual and tactile experiences that invited sighted viewers to engage with the potentiality of ‘seeing’ and experiencing what people who are blind perceive through touch. Her Taxi Hand Signs together with the Blind Shapes were chosen by the S. A. Post Office for The South African National Commemorative Stamp in 2010, launched together with the second Taxi Hand Signs booklet publication, at the Standard Bank Art Gallery. In 2011, the signs created for the Blind, with their own visceral and tactile qualities, were exhibited in a group exhibition on communication entitled Talk to Me, at the Museum of Modern Art [MoMa] in New York. In 2013 she held a multi-media exhibition at the Wits Art Museum [WAM] .Also on display was the Dictionary GRID artwork, which is a compilation of forty of the gouache paintings of gloved taxi hand gestures. It portrays, for people who are blind, how each gloved sign evolves into a unique symbol compiled from the 14 tactile shapes. This work represents a culmination of the previous years of research since 2004 that it took to find the hand signs, connect them with their destinations and discover the political or historical, geographical narrative associated with each. Her personal endeavors through her art exposed the essentially rich and vital socio-political narratives of taxi hand signs and their value as a part of South African culture. Woolf graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand with a Doctor of Philosophy. Taxi hand signs could now take their place in documented history.



    The 2016 multi-layered exhibition at the South African Jewish Museum magnifies the expected limits of what the silent, inclusive taxi hand signs mean as reference in terms of culture and history in Gauteng, and as practiced all over South Africa. While retaining the basic elements of the 2013 exhibition at WAM, the South African Jewish Museum exhibition shows both Woolf’s preceding and new artwork - including abstractions from the blind shape language - to demonstrate the essence of communication through symbolic coding to sighted people. These works are a natural extension of previous sculptural works where texts and coded language reflect in shadow. On exhibition are two examples, an indoor installation Table of Contents [2