PATHWAYS OF TAXI HAND SIGNS
The taxi hand gestures in the artwork reflect the frenetic energy of the taxi industry. They are arranged to suggest pathways in every direction, emulating the underlying planned routes and spontaneous diversions of taxi drivers to reach their destinations timeously. This limited edition print is an enlargement and re-interpretation drawn from an original artwork made of teabag paper, glue, ink and paint.
Title of work: Pathways of taxi hand signs.
Medium: Ink on Cotton Rag paper.
Size: W 110cm x H 130cm [Without Frame].
Date of production: 28/07/2019
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