‘Language’ is the system of communication, in the form of speech and writing, employed by a specific group of people, usually originating from a specific geographical area or region. Human language is inseparable from human thought and distinguishes man from animals.
Different aspects of language had become the source for many conceptual artworks by the time the group Art & Language was founded by Michael Baldwin, David Bainbridge, Terry Atkinson, and Harold Hurrell in 1968. These artists considered language to be a crucial aspect of their practice, in which they critiqued the underlying assumptions of modern painting and sculpture, formalist processes, art practices, production, and criticism. Since the 1970s, language has been seen as a means of moving from form and image-based works to a more theoretical and conceptual artistic discourse. This shift, away from the image and towards text, has led to a new relationship between image and text, in which images are translated to symbols, and symbols to text. It has meant that text – rather than image – becomes a basis for art production, which in turn has meant the appearance of ‘art as idea’.
Questioning the process of art production, American artists like Jenny Holzer have built on the traditions of conceptual and installation art of the late 1960s. Holzer developed a mode of textual art during the 1970s, using electronic signs and various printed media to explore language and text as a form of art. Her ‘Inflammatory Essays’, conceived in the late 1970s, are indicative of the way in which she has created a division between text and image. Prior to this, Joseph Kosuth proposed the use of text in his work as means of replacing painting, exploring the production and role of language and meaning in art. Text in Kosuth’s work of the 1960s facilitates a conceptual mode of production and the dissolution of the art object.
Language continued to be fundamental in the work of many American artists during the 1980s. Lorna Simpson, for example, used language as a device to move away from purely image-based photography. Simpson’s combination of text and photography allowed her to construct readings of the black woman as an erotic curiosity and, at the same time, to change the simple reading of images, and to create layers of signification in her work.
In the contemporary South African context, artists such as Willem Boshoff make works which are informed by language. Boshoff’s sculptures and dictionaries suggest a relationship with language that extends beyond the simple use of text, to a specific interest in language itself and what constitutes language as a form.
Similarly, Frances Goodman has explored the desires, compulsions, insecurities, and obsessions hidden in our use of language, saying that ‘After working with a number of media I eventually found that words and language had the uncanny ability to unnerve and get under people’s skins, in a way that visual images and modes could not … sometimes [words] are simple and clear, and yet they are often full of innuendoes and subtexts’.
Language also defines power relations, and in the colonial context, the language of the coloniser reinforced power structures and symbolised authority. Artists have often made reference to this in their works, showing the role that language plays in our relation to society and to power. Brett Murray for example, plays with words in order to critique South African politics. Kudzanai Chiurai uses posters, such as the kind used in political campaigns, , to demonstrate state violence, political unrest, and corrupted power.
Kendell Geers uses language to interrogate the art establishment and society in general, questioning our existing moral codes and suggesting new approaches. He has argued that ‘Language is a self-replicating virus that can only be destroyed by a stronger, more resilient virus. Through the mirror of the colloquial, the tongue gets twisted and forgets its place in collecting our thoughts’, and that ‘language is oppressive for it only acknowledges that which can be named. It is not the result of any particular individual’s design as much as the external manifestation of culture’.
Works by these artists and the others on this show have been chosen for their engagement with language and discourse. Sometimes this engagement is enacted on the level of form – so that words and characters become images – and at other times the engagement is an interrogation, through text, of what constitutes the image.
South African-born, Belgian artist Kendell Geers changed his date of birth to May 1968 in order to give birth to himself as a work of art. Describing himself as an ‘AniMystikAKtivist’, Geers takes a syncretic approach to art that weaves together diverse Afro-European traditions, including animism, alchemy, mysticism, ritual and a socio-political activism laced with black humour, irony and cultural contradiction.
Geers’s work has been shown in numerous international group exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale (2007) and Documenta (2002). Major solo shows include Heart of Darkness at Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town (1993), Third World Disorder at Goodman Gallery Cape Town (2010) and more recently Songs of Innocence and of Experience at Goodman Gallery Johannesburg (2012). His exhibition Irrespektiv travelled to Newcastle, Ghent, Salamanca and Lyon between 2007 and 2009. Geers was included on Art Unlimited at Art 42 Basel in 2011. Work by Geers was included on Manifesta 9 in Genk, Limburg, Belgium and a major survey show of his work was exhibited at Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany in 2013. Earlier this year Geers held a solo exhibition, The Second Coming (Do What Thou Wilt), at Rua Red in Dublin.
Jenny Holzer was born in the village of Gallipolis, in southeastern Ohio, USA, in 1950. She first visited New York City when she was eleven, and eventually moved there in 1977 when she was accepted into the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program. She had studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and at a certain point during her MA there, she began incorporating text into her paintings. She wrote her first Truisms in 1977. In an interview with Diane Waldman in 1989 (published in Jenny Holzer, Guggenheim Museum), Holzer talks about what motivated her decision to begin writing and more or less abandon painting as she had practiced and studied it up to that point: ‘I wanted to see if I could make anything that would be of use to or have some kind of meaning for a general audience, people on their way to lunch who didn’t care anything about art.’ She also says that in incorporating her work into the signage and furniture of a city like New York (she has, over the years, placed work in many other urban spaces all over the world) she didn’t want either complete control of complete chaos, ‘but both there in their extreme forms, not averaged.’ To this end, Holzer has employed every kind of public sign writing to make art that is incorporated into the public architecture of cities.
Holzer has been doing solo and collaborative installations and exhibitions in galleries and urban environments all over the world since 1978, including in New York, Berlin, Venice, Osaka, Lund, Boston, Hamburg, London, Paris, Saõ Paolo, and Seoul. These works have taken the form of LED signs, pastings, posters, light installations, writing on stone, billboards, plaques, graffiti, prints, projections, t-shirts, and tattoos. She is also a painter and printmaker – her canvases are strongly text based – and has published books, essays, and stories. She has done a number of special projects for various cities and these include LED installations, electronic signs, projections, and engravings on benches. Holzer has won several major awards including honorary doctorates, the Leone d’Oro at the Venice Biennale, and the Goslar Emperor Ring.
Brett Murray studied at the University of Cape Town where he was awarded his Master’s of Fine Arts degree in 1988 with distinction. The title of his dissertation is ‘A Group of Satirical Sculptures Examining Social and Political Paradoxes in the South African Context’. As an undergraduate he won Irma Stern Scholarships in both 1981 and 1982. He won the Simon Garson Prize for the most Promising student in 1982 and was awarded the Michaelis Prize in 1983. As a postgraduate student he received a Human Sciences Research Council bursary, a University of Cape Town Research Scholarship, the Jules Kramer Grant and an Irma Stern Scholarship.
He has exhibited extensively in South Africa and abroad. From 1991 to 1994 he established the sculpture department at the University of Stellenbosch, where he curated the show ‘Thirty Sculptors from the Western Cape’ in 1992. In 1995 he curated, with Kevin Brand, ‘Scurvy’, at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. That year he co-curated ‘Junge Kunst Aus Zud Afrika’ for the Hänel Gallery in Frankfurt, Germany.
In 1999, Brett co-founded, with artists and cultural practitioners Lisa Brice, Kevin Brand, Bruce Gordon, Andrew Putter, Sue Williamson, Robert Weinek and Lizza Littlewort, ‘Public Eye’, a Section 27 company that manage and initiate art projects in the public arena with the aims to develop a greater profile for public art in Cape Town. They have initiated projects on Robben Island, worked with the cities health officials on aids awareness campaigns and initiated outdoor sculpture projects including ‘The Spier Sculpture Biennale’. He curated ‘Homeport’ in 2001 which saw 15 artists create site specific text based works in Cape Town’s waterfront precinct. Public Eye have interfaced with cultural funding bodies as consultants and hosted multi-media events across the city.
Murray was included on the Cuban Biennial of 1994, and subsequently his works where exhibited at the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art in Germany. He was included on the group show, ‘Springtime in Chile’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Santiago, Chile. He was also part of the travelling show ‘Liberated Voices, Contemporary Art From South Africa’ which opened at the Museum for African Art in New York in 1998. His work formed part of the shows ‘Min(d)fields’ at the Kunsthaus in Baselland, Switzerland in 2004 and ‘The Geopolitics of Animation‘ at the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo in Seville in Spain in 2007. He won the Cape Town Urban Art competition in 1998 that resulted in the public work ‘Africa’, a 3.5 metre bronze sculpture, being erected in Cape Town’s city centre. He won, with Stefaans Samcuia, the commission to produce an 8 × 30 meter wall sculpture for the foyer of the Cape Town International Convention Centre in 2003. In 2007 he completed ‘Specimens’, a large wall sculpture for the University Of Cape Town’s medical school campus. In 2011 he produced the public artwork ‘Seeds’ for The University of Bloemfontein and in 2013 he was commissioned to produce the 7 meter bronze ‘Citizen’ for the Auto & General Park in Johannesburg.
His solo shows include: ‘White Boy Sings the Blues’ at the Rembrandt Gallery in Johannesburg in 1996, ‘I love Africa’ at the Bell-Roberts Gallery in Cape Town in 2000, ‘Us and Them’ at the Axis Gallery in New York in 2003 and ‘Sleep Sleep’ at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg in 2006. His solo show, ‘Crocodile Tears’, was held at both the Cape Town and Johannesburg branches of The Goodman Gallery in 2007 and 2009. His recent show, ‘Hail To The Thief’, was first held at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town in 2010, and then at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg in 2012. He was nominated as the Standard Bank Young Artist of the year in 2002.
Willem Boshoff was born in Vereeniging, South Africa, in 1951. His father was a carpenter who worked in and around Vanderbijlpark, very close to where the Sharpeville massacre occurred in 1960. Boshoff studied and taught at the Johannesburg College of Art and the Witwatersrand Technikon, and he lives in Johannesburg. He is both a wordsmith and a maker of images and objects.
A self-taught dendrologist, he ranges widely across the fields of botany, literature, and geography. He has made concrete poetry; he reads and makes dictionaries; he is a sculptor and makes installations; he is an inveterate seeker after words, names, plants, and objects both natural and synthetic, from which he constructs his sculptures and images. ‘One of his main aims,’ says the writer Ivan Vladislavic in the monograph TAXI-11 Willem Boshoff, ‘is recovery – of lost words, sated senses, family unities, broken maps.’ Boshoff’s encyclopaedic impulse is evidenced in his collecting and making practices: everything is material for making art, every detail in the natural world is imbued with meaning and can be appropriated or spoken of with fervour. Many of Boshoff’s works are incomplete, evolving, or in process as long as the world yields some form of knowledge that he can incorporate into what he is making.
Boshoff’s work has been shown at many major museums in the world and he has been included in biennales in Johannesburg, Havana, Venice, and Saõ Paolo. His solo shows and permanent installations include Blind Alphabet; Nonplussed; dictionaries; cryptic writings such as Bangboek; the ever-growing Garden of Words; and his massive sculptures in stone. He exhibited at the Nirox Foundation outside of Johannesburg, and Circa Gallery.
HANK WILLIS THOMAS is a conceptual artist working primarily with themes related to perspective, identity, commodity, media, and popular culture. His work has been exhibited throughout the United States and abroad including the International Center of Photography, New York; Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain; Musée du quai Branly, Paris; Hong Kong Arts Centre, Hong Kong, and the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Netherlands. Thomas’ work is included in numerous public collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Brooklyn Museum, New York; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. His collaborative projects include Question Bridge: Black Males, In Search Of The Truth (The Truth Booth), Writing on the Wall, and the artist-run initiative for art and civic engagement For Freedoms, which in 2017 was awarded the ICP Infinity Award for New Media and Online Platform. Thomas is also the recipient of the Gordon Parks Foundation Fellowship (2019), the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (2018), Art for Justice Grant (2018), AIMIA | AGO Photography Prize (2017), Soros Equality Fellowship (2017), and is a member of the New York City Public Design Commission. Thomas holds a B.F.A. from New York University (1998) and an M.A./M.F.A. from the California College of the Arts (2004). In 2017, he received honorary doctorates from the Maryland Institute of Art and the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts.
Kudzanai Chiurai (b. 1981) is an internationally acclaimed young artist born in Zimbabwe. Born one year after Zimbabwe’s emergence from white-ruled Rhodesia, Chiurai’s early work has focused on the political, economic and social strife in his homeland however, his art practice spans a diverse range of media.
From large mixed media works and paintings that tackle some of the most pertinent issues facing Southern Africa such as xenophobia, displacement and black empowerment, Chiurai’s artworks confront viewers with the psychological and physical experience of inner-city environments of African metropolitans, seeing these spaces as the continent’s most cosmopolitan melting pots in which thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers who battle for survival alongside the never-ending swell of newly urbanized denizens. As an increasingly important figure in contemporary African art, Chiurai has expanded his art and activist practice to include photography and video: mediums that enable the artist to address pertinent issues facing his generation of southern Africans.
Chiurai has held numerous solo exhibitions since 2003 and has participated in various local and international exhibitions, such as ‘Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography’ (2011) at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and ‘Impressions from South Africa, 1965 to Now’ (2011) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Other notable exhibitions include ‘The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell Revisited’ curated by Simon Njami at Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt (2014) and SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah USA (2015), as well as ‘Art/Afrique, Le nouvel atelier’ (2017) at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris and ‘Regarding the Ease of Others’ (2017) at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa.
His Conflict Resolution series was exhibited at dOCUMENTA (13) (2012) in Kassel and the film Iyeza was one of the few African films to be included in the New Frontier shorts programme at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013. Chiurai has held numerous solo exhibitions with Goodman Gallery and has edited four publications with contributions by leading African creatives.
At present, the artist lives and works in Harare, Zimbabwe.