THS. Blind Shape System
Millions of commuters all over South Africa use taxi hand signs as a way of indicating their intended destination to the over 15 000 taxi drivers in the country. South Africa’s public bus services have remained fairly undeveloped, as a result of the implementation of apartheid and a system of racial separation in 1948. The result has been a private but organised taxi transport sector operating many commuter routes within Gauteng.
For eleven years until 2004, my art studio was in Braamfontein on the top floor of a warehouse. My route home every afternoon was along Louis Botha Avenue. You have to have your wits about you to drive on Louis Botha Avenue, as hundreds of minibus taxis driving north and south weave in and out of traffic at will, hooting in perpetual ‘beeps’ to attract the commuters’ attention. Taxi drivers stop any place at all on the road, double park, ignore no-go areas and yellow lines or block the flow of traffic for as long as it takes to pick up passengers along the way. I became increasingly aware of the many people gesturing to the taxi drivers with different hand signs, not only on Louis Botha Avenue, but all over the city. I was curious that such an obviously successful travel language, an intrinsically South African form of interaction existed. I wondered how many signs there were, when and by whom these signs were learned and communicated. Had the destinations and hand signs been documented? Why had this silent taxi sign language been adopted – yet taken for granted by so many different travelers? Are these taxi hand signs a curiosity for people who have their own means of transport? Do motorists even notice others signaling?
I wondered if taxi hand signs constitute a language. How does this form of communication compare to other established gestural languages, like sign language? I wondered if blind people took taxis and knew that commuters were using hand signals to alert taxi drivers. I thought it would be a fascinating investigation for a social arts project and I began to record on paper some of the hand signs I was seeing. My art has always had a community aspect to it and as usual I began my research hardly knowing where to begin or where it would lead. My first objective was to determine and document all the taxi hand signs and their associated destinations, while the more interesting aspects of the phenomenon of Taxi hand signs would be gleaned through a broader and deeper research strategy. And so began a process that has taken several years.
In 2004 our family home was being renovated and I finally acquired my own art studio. I photographed the builders on the property who allowed me to photograph my first taxi hand signs and their corresponding destinations. I also took photographs of the torn, worn shoes and yellow plastic builders’ gloves they left behind every day, strategically placed on steel reinforcement poles, only to be worn again on subsequent workdays. The shoes and gloves spoke volumes about the life of each owner, histories I would never know. However the images of the yellow gloves on a pole had a certain lightness and humor that was to shape my ideas for representing the Taxi hand signs from the very first.
There appeared to be no other documentation on taxi hand signs when in late 2004 I approached Phillip Jordaan at SABWA (South African Blind Workers Association – then known as the South African Council for the Blind), to see if he felt that my designs of taxi hand signs for blind people was a value worth pursuing. He required graphic renditions of the shapes in a program that the relief printer could interpret. Jordaan’s translation of the graphics to dotted shapes on computer made the transference to tactile shapes on paper through the relief print machine possible. From then onwards I developed the shapes for the blind, tested and reshaped under the guidance of Wellington Pike, Johannes Dube and some of their blind musician friends. Pike was the blind guide for Willem Boshoff’s art library The Blind Alphabet. As initiator and project manager of the exhibition entitled South African Art to Atlanta: Common and Uncommon Ground,
I continued to record gloved taxi hand signs on paper, enquiring from virtually any taxi commuter whom I met which sign they used to go where. In February 2005 I had my first arranged interview with a taxi driver from the Taxi Association DORJOLTA, Simelane Zeblon. In 2006 I made an appointment with Simphiwe Ntuli from the City Council to show him the prototypes of what I then referred to as the étaxi handbook and blind étaxi handbook. No progress was made with the Council despite further meetings.
Most constructive was the reception and guidance from Eric Motshwane , the chairman of the GJRTC . He introduced me to Patric Impepi and Shirley Khunou who both in their own separate capacities were able to guide me as to where to go and who to speak to in terms of taxi hand sign information and corresponding destinations. Both Impepi and Khunou became key respondents in my research endeavours. They advised me and on occasions accompanied me into various townships to meet people in the taxi industry. In 2006 I had an appointment to meet the chairman of the Witwatersrand Taxi Association, Rams Morate. I also met Mr Skosana, the chairman of the Faraday Taxi Association on three occasions with eighteen of his taxi Squad car members, Q marshals and executives. I photographed each driver who showed me the hand sign and corresponding destination of his route. Few of these people spoke English. Khunou from the GJRTC came with me on our first meeting and explained my intentions in Xhosa, Sotho and Zulu. I am currently working with three researchers who collectively speak several African languages. They photograph hand signs, take notes, translate and transcribe interactions with respondents during fieldwork.
My research has thus far taken place in the taxi ranks in Alexander Township, Soweto, Roodepoort, Sandton, Randburg, Metro Mall in Bree Street, and other places in Gauteng. As mentioned above, Impepi, chairman of the Taxi Liaison Committee and dispute manager of all the government taxi associations and Top Six Taxi Associations in Soweto met me on several occasions throughout the two years, allowing me to record his life history. By 2007 I had produced a book for the libraries with taxi hand signs and destinations for sighted and blind people. I had developed tactile shapes which coded for the taxi hand signs and could easily be read by blind people. Armed with a portfolio of Gouache paintings, cartoons, street sculpture designs and three full folders of research material I wondered how I could proceed in a meaningful way with this social arts endeavour.
There appeared to be parallels in the research and the social, community-based art investigation with aspects of anthropological exploration. Anthropological methodology and transcription would provide a more accurate framework for the research. The gestalt from the experiences and knowledge gained in the field would augment the findings of the taxi hand signs as a specific South African cultural phenomenon and allow for a more broadly communicative outcome in further encouraging an understanding between different sectors of the community.
After three years of working on a social interventionist art project outside of any institution, I published the first book in South Africa in 2007 on Taxi hand signs and their associated destinations. The next book, Taxi hand signs Book for the Blind, was launched on 30 September 2009 at a joint exhibition showcasing the taxi hand signs tactile language for the blind and l’Afrique featuring the Maria Stein Lessing collection, at Museum Africa. An educational component of workshops corresponded with the South African Post Office launch of the taxi hand signs on the South African National commemorative Stamp for 2010.
A set of ten stamps and two first edition envelopes was launched at the Standard Bank Art Gallery on 29 January 2010. The stamps represent two ‘firsts’, the first Taxi hand signs on a stamp, and the first use of thermography as a process on a South African stamp, resulting in taxi hand signs shapes raised in relief on the stamp for blind people to interpret without using Braille. The Stamps were voted 5th most Important Stamp in the world for 2010 by Stampnews.com.
A pocket-size Taxi hand sign booklet for sighted people was also launched at the Standard Bank Art Gallery on 29 January 2010, together with the first Taxi Destination Map at the back of the booklet.
List of completed outcomes
2007, Taxi hand signs book for sighted and blind (ISBN 9780620383493)
2009, Taxi hand sign book for the Blind (ISBN 9780981414435)
2009, Sighted version of Taxi hand signs for the Blind (ISBN 9780981414461)
2010, Taxi hand signs Launched at Standard Bank Art Gallery (ISBN 9780620383493)
2010, First Taxi hand sign Destination Taxi Map for Gauteng
2010, South African National Commemorative Stamp. Set of ten for 2010/2011. Launched at the Standard Bank Art Gallery. Two First Edition (FDC) Envelopes with Taxi hand sign stamps.
1. Three individual ‘stand alone’ Graphic renderings b/w of taxi hand sign shapes for blind people on German etching board. Size unframed: 42cm x 42cm. To be exhibited in the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art in New york) in an exhibition called Talk To Me in July through September 2011.
2. Eleven framed artworks called Touch Teasers (30 September 2009). Size in Frame: 28cm x 28cm with special glass for sighted people to see the Blind Taxi hand sign language. Graphics in relief under glass. To be exhibited in the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art in New york) in an exhibition called Talk To Me in July through September 2011.
3. 30 September 2009. ART BOOK: Edition 1/7: Size in book box: 27cm x 27cm. Contains Two Graphic editions prints 1/20 on German etching paper. All tactile and Braille pages from the first taxi hand signs book for the blind.
4. 2004 – 2006. Unique taxi hand sign painting of coloured gloves.
Media: Painting gouache on Hammer board. Size: 610cm x 495cm.
5. 2008 – Edition of First Taxi hand sign painting of coloured gloves.
Media: Edition prints 1/40 on Buttenpapier. Size 610mm x 495mm
6. 2007 - 2008. Unique taxi hand sign coloured gloves. 26 Paintings in SA Taxi Finance Corporate art collection.
7. 2009. Mono Print with unique pencil renderings. Size: 980cm x 1495cm. Cotton Rag paper (Wits Art Collection).
8. 2009. Mono Print with unique pencil renderings. Size: 980cm x 1495cm. Cotton Rag paper 1meter X 1meter 50cm. (USA Art Collector)
9. 2009. Multiple Taxi hand signs edition print. 1/150. 30cm x 30cm (special edition print all acquired by South African Taxi Finance).
10. Graphic Edition [Commission] 1/100 “Goal Posts” Using stamps and Jane Makhubele’s Soccer Beadwork.
11. Cartoons 10 unique. Personal ink sketches finalised with computer graphic technique.
Documentary and Art Film in progress.
Talks on taxi hand sign project:
1. TEDx Johannesburg. Sandton Square Theatre, 2009.
2. National Council of Women. Rosebank, 2010.
3. Roedene School. Johannesburg. Feburary 2011.
4. Second Innings. Our parents Home. April 2011.
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 , can be read on the floor in Shorthand, challenging the viewer to properly see ‘others’ beyond the initial impression. In Witness: Shadow of Ubuntu (2008), the shadow projected from the abstract sculptured shapes make up the word Ubuntu at a specific time in the day. The Short Hands series, with new codes for gesturing, is a progression from this. Woolf designed this coding as a means of describing gestures in textual form. She shows how art, when presented in unexpected forms, may alter perceptions in ways that challenge the viewer.
These and other new handmade artworks and relief prints reflect on symbols used within the shape language to inform on city and environment while using the blind shape language to do so. Take for example the directional lines in the shape language, which indicate that the hand is moving. In the four artworks titled Pathways (Figures x x x x) on page xx, directional lines suggest movement and direction within a ‘possible’ city space, once again revealing how closely her concepts from previous sculptural works derive, advancing as they do the notions of ‘other’ and ‘seeing’ and pursuing her expressions of language, coding and shadow. The 2016 multi-layered exhibition at the South African Jewish Museum, depending on what the participant is viewing or touching, can be distilled into parts that are insubstantial, subtle, psychological, coded, visual, tactile, dense, colourful and substantial.
The graphic tactile shape language for blind people on the wall consists of over fifty black taxi hand signs, laser cut in heavy-duty vinyl. These are intended for both sighted and blind people to experience and are a combination of fourteen basic forms, which combine with each other to make up each taxi sign. Where there is movement involved in the signing, directional lines are used.
As the visitors to the Museum descend the broad steps down into the atrium, they may walk across the 7 meters of red blind shapes on the floor, leading into a darkened room constructed in the exhibition space. It is in moments like this, in the dark space, where those who can see must activate their memory and feel the textured shapes, while relying on an an individual who is blind to be their guide. In the darkness, while endeavoring to discover meaning with the blind codes, there is a certain disquiet; a place for humility and respect for the other person, who may under different circumstances otherwise be seen but not always acknowledged. Such shifting of power was inspired by Willem Boshoff’s Blind Alphabet (1990-1995). (Woolf was the Project Director, together with artist Lesley Price and curator Steven Sack, of the exhibition South African Art to Atlanta: Common and Uncommon Ground during the Atlanta cultural Olympiad in 1996.
Within the exhibition, three short films are playing, the latter two connected.
The film taken inside Bree Street Metro Mall is projected onto the floor. The intention was to selectively shoot and record in the taxi rank in order to exemplify a vibrant functional South African taxi transport environment and to show the commuter’s responses to engagement on the subject of taxi hand signs. The site of the film on the floor is intentionally chosen so that viewers can walk on the looping projection and, in a way, feel a part of the busy taxi rank.
Projected onto a wall, however, are the latter two four-minute films, which are a compilation of carefully selected footage drawn from all the documentary research films shot in the taxi ranks and during semi-structured interviews. The two short films are titled: Isindlela Zamagundwane. Taxi hand signs, in the landscape of little mice and Isindlela Zamagundwane. Taxi hand signs, blind in the landscape of little mice. The titles of the films introduce the landscape or context within which taxi drivers and commuters operate. The Landscape of Little Mice draws attention to the generally casual and spontaneous actions of minibus taxi drivers who deviate on the spur of the moment from planned routes. Blind in the Landscape of Little Mice shows a person who is blind who, like many people who do not have transport, use taxi hand signs to summon a taxi.
Artworks from The Other Side series on the taxi landscape allude to what it is to communicate with signs. These textured works, with numbered and lettered beads on hand made paper, employs the same simple shapes of the dot, triangle, square, oblong and directional lines to project and communicate more succinctly the highly charged taxi transport environment to which the taxi hand signs are intricately linked.
With the concept of her +7m mural, SIGNIFICATION Textarea, Woolf takes a different turn. The artwork is an abstraction that reflects the overall act of taxi signification and messaging. Throughout this artwork it is clear that what is left out is more important than what can be seen. Like the silence of a pause in music music, vastness of spaces are recognised by what is visually omitted, making space for movement and transferal. Implied movement over time is a part of the conceptual vision; the artwork encourages the eye of the viewer to scan from one focal point in the work to the next. The movement of the eye across spaces of symbolic landscapes and reflections of structures and streets is equivalent to following a message as it transfers from commuter to driver. The word ‘Textarea’, as Woolf herself describes, is indicative of the return route when weaving thread across the weft of a loom. It also speaks about a mental continuum and messaging, because one must turn things upside-down and think laterally to tell one’s story.
Woolf’s latest Art Book (Figure x Pg x), has been created over a period of several months at Blind SA. The book unfolds much like a concertina to 30 meters in length. A visually enticing and tactile composite of millions of tiny dots make up each very much enlarged taxi hand sign shape.
This exhibition brings into focus the taxi hand sign phenomenon that is entrenched in South African culture. It is a tribute to the unidentified people who have contributed to the informal system of communication towards taxi transport; it demonstrates a deep appreciation of the narrative content linking gestures to certain areas and bringing to life social commentary on living conditions, or records of past events. In the exhibition, Woolf addresses both people who are sighted and people who are blind. She seeks to challenge perceptions of ‘other’, through her series The Other Side and through language and codes in her all white work Short Hands.