The Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria (Javett-UP), renowned South African sculptor Willem Boshoff and curator Helene Smuts recently hosted a class of art students from the University of the Free State for a walkabout exhibition of Boshoff’s Blind Alphabet (1990–present) installation, a selection of which is on display at Javett-UP.
This special tour was designed to encourage interaction between sighted visual arts students and blind or low-vision individuals, which is exactly what Boshoff hopes to achieve with this work. “Allowing blind people to talk with great proficiency about how they navigate a world that is designed for sighted people is the main aim of this artwork,” he said.
According to Dr Jenni Lauwrens, Senior Lecturer in Visual Culture Studies at UP, Blind Alphabet is a “morphological dictionary created for the blind”. There are more than 400 sculptures made of wood, steel and aluminium in this series. Each sculpture represents an obscure word that Boshoff has sought out and which describes a form, shape or texture.
“The sculptures are stored in black mesh boxes with an aluminium sheet on the lid that provides an explanation in braille of the word that each sculpture represents,” Dr Lauwrens explains. “The boxes are placed on pedestals of equal height and exhibited in several rows. This arrangement allows a blind person to easily navigate their way from one box to the next, almost like turning pages in a book. The sculptures inside the boxes are also small enough to be held so that their contours and textures can be easily explored.”
The special tour was designed to encourage interaction between sighted visual arts students and blind or low-vision individuals, which is exactly what renowned South African sculptor Willem Boshoff (seated) hopes to achieve with his installation, 'Blind Alphabet'. (Image: Rian Horn, University of the Free State, Art Department)
Interestingly, Blind Alphabet may be touched only by blind and partially sighted people. “The sculptures are easily accessible to blind audiences, but sighted viewers are not permitted to open the boxes and are therefore denied access to the sculptures,” Dr Lauwrens said. “They can only look at the row upon row of black mesh boxes, that look almost like a graveyard.”
She added that Boshoff could be described as a walking dictionary, owing to the great deal of time he has invested in “collecting” words, and that it is always fascinating to hear him talk about his art. “We were all captivated by the stories lurking behind the creation of some of the sculptures in Blind Alphabet.”
“As someone with low-sighted vision, touching the art was an unusual feeling but also a positive one,” said Juan Erwee, Technical Officer at UP’s Disability Unit. “As blind people, we do not usually interact with art, especially in museums. Curators should provide more verbal information for people with visual disabilities as well as tour guides.”
Dr Lauwrens was asked to join the walkabout with Erwee as part of her research on blind and partially sighted individuals’ experience of the installation. “Erwee took several sculptures out of their boxes, and explored their contours and textures,” she said. “I asked him questions about the experience. For instance, I asked him to describe the temperature, texture, weight and size of the sculpture; what material he thought the sculpture was made of; and how he knows this. Both the artist and the students were fascinated by Erwee’s responses to the questions. They were especially astounded by which parts of the sculptures he found more intricate than others, and whether or not these were considered ‘pleasing’ in an aesthetic sense. They noticed that a blind person spends more time experiencing a sculpture through the sense of touch than a sighted person usually does when looking at an artwork.”
Dr Lauwrens says Boshoff’s inspiration stemmed from wanting to upend conventional regulations about who may see and experience artworks in a museum or gallery. “Traditionally, senses other than sight are not welcome in these spaces,” she said. “Moreover, art critics and those who write about art are usually considered to have superior insight into the meanings of artworks. Exceptions to this rule occur only when a museum opens up a section of its exhibition to touch as in ‘touch exhibitions’. The rationale for Blind Alphabet is therefore to disable sight and enable or rather ‘ennoble’ touch in an aesthetic experience. When experiencing this work, the blind person literally has the ‘upper hand’ as they are the expert on what lies inside the boxes.”