In 2020, during the Covid-19 lockdown, 40 wooden forms representing the letter B in Willem Boshoff’s seminal work The Blind Alphabet (1991), were presented in wood, steel and aluminium as part of an online documentary project for the Moving Cube, UJ Art Gallery’s online platform. This digital experience, The Blind Alphabet – Letter B: Babery to Bigeminate, was curated by Annali Cabano-Dempsey, Curator of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) Gallery, and Niel Nortje, Manager of the MTN Art Collection. The Blind Alphabet is part of the extensive MTN Art Collection.
A year later and in the wake of the third wave of the pandemic, the UJ Art Gallery presents The Blind Alphabet – Sculpture and Sound from 27 October to 24 November; a hybrid event comprising a physical exhibition with walkabouts as well as an online component with a Zoom webinar on YouTube and the UJ Gallery’s Facebook page.
Reimagining The Blind Alphabet in 2021
‘Fine art needs other disciplines, especially music, to continue to exist meaningfully. Music needs fine art to continue to exist meaningfully.’
Boshoff is a respected South African artist known for his ability to push the boundaries of conceptual art. The Blind Alphabet, an English dictionary written in Braille, is intended as a way to get blind people to help sighted exhibition visitors to discover the meaning of the wooden sculptures, contained in mesh caskets intended for interpretation by visually impaired visitors. Attached to the lid of each casket is a sheet of aluminium embossed with a text in Braille, giving the word, its meaning and derivation, and examples for its usage.
Technological developments since the 1990s and the outdated nature of the Braille type format led to a new presentation of the letter B within The Blind Alphabet, with the added benefit of enhanced accessibility for the visually challenged through new processes of digitisation of the artwork and music, or sound, accompanying each of the forty sculptures, composed by Jaco Meyer. The research component of Meyer’s MMus degree at the North-West University dealt with the principles of orchestration through the lens of musical forces. This research was conducted in more depth when he completed his PhD in Musicology and Music Analysis as he expanded the theory of musical forces by using analyses of the music by the Belgian composer Wim Henderickx.
‘The technology was added in such a way that it is not separate from the artwork, merely providing more information about the work, but as an integral part of the sculptures without interfering with the authentic nature of the works. The use of technology is ubiquitous among the visually impaired, therefore, we also employ it as a tool to facilitate a deeper understanding of art and concepts through tactile and audial senses. One might consider the technological addition to The Blind Alphabet as a subliminal enticement to explore the conceptual art of Willem Boshoff at its best.’Jaco Meyer
In addition, voice-overs by Louise van Wingerden explain the rationale behind each work. The visually impaired can access the works through a strategically placed QR code and listen to the text and Meyer’s sounds on earphones. All the sound files will be hosted in URL link format on both the UJ Art Gallery and MTN Foundation websites.
Harnessing technology to broaden access to the arts
Pretoria-based artist, Selwyn Steyn, winner of the 2020 Emerging Artist Development Programme with his Memetic Sculpture: A Speculation on Cultural Contagion, was commissioned to create a new three-dimensional work in the form of a QR code for this exhibition similarly to his winning work which was stained meranti-wood, galvanised steel bolts, aluminium wire, and paint. This work, in the same shape and format of that of the sculptures in The Blind Alphabet, will serve as the point of entry from where a newly developed application can be downloaded to both Android and Apple devices.
This application, developed by Marco Bester, application developer, enables both visually impaired and visually abled visitors to download the app by scanning a 3D QR code. Once the app is downloaded to a phone, the viewer will be able to scan individual QR codes that are on the caskets of the artworks. The icon, in the form of the Braille letter B can be found on Google Play, Playstore, and Huawei Store.
Visually impaired individuals, through the intervention of Blind SA, formed part of a sampling and testing process to ensure the feasibility and practical use of the application and QR codes.
Apart from Steyn’s winning work, the artworks by the other nine finalists in the Emerging Artist Development programme will be exhibited along with The Blind Alphabet. The finalists are Alexa Pienaar, Franz Phooko, Lana Combrinck, Miné Kleynhans, Neo Diseko, Oratile Papi Koropi, Tré Mkhabela, Tristin Roland and Xanthé Jackson.
In addition to UJ Art Gallery’s first physical opening since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, open access to this first hybrid pilot event will be facilitated through Zoom while a very small number of parties involved will attend in person. Scheduled for 27 October at 18:00, a walkabout by Helene Smuts, curator of the exhibition Willem Boshoff – Word Woes at the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria, will be accompanied by Niel Nortje, manager of the MTN Art Collection and Annali Cabano-Dempsey, curator of the UJ Art Gallery. The Zoom broadcast can be followed on YouTube and the UJ Art Gallery’s Facebook page.
CLICK HERE to book your virtual seat or follow the live walkabout on the UJ Art Gallery’s Facebook page.
The artworks can also be viewed by appointment for the duration of the exhibition on Wednesdays between 09:00 and 15:00. CLICK HERE to book your in-person viewing appointment.
Walkabouts will be hosted on 3, 6, 17 and 20 November at 10:30 for groups of ten people. CLICK HERE to book your appointment.
For more information contact Annali Cabano-Dempsey at firstname.lastname@example.org or Rika Nortje at email@example.com.