Following what was a hugely successful, engaging, and interactive multimedia exhibition for part of Willem Boshoff’s vital body of work The Blind Alphabet – Letter B: Babery to Bigeminate in 2020, UJ Gallery revisits The Blind Alphabet through Sculpture and Sound from 27 October – 24 November 2021.
The Blind Alphabet – Sculpture and Sound is 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.
A brief history of The Blind Alphabet
A body of work started in 1990, The Blind Alphabet is designed primarily for the visually impaired. It is a hands-on series of sculptures, its many pieces sculpted from a range of woods which are soft to the touch. Each word-sculpture is about the size of a rugby ball, easy to pick up, fondle and then pass on to others. In the hands of a blind person, each sculpture becomes a tool with which to explore the meaning of a particular word by feeling and so interpreting its form. The meaning of each one of the forty rather complex words in The Blind Alphabet – Letter B: Babery to Bigeminate, all starting with the letter B, is also provided, but only in the tactile language of Braille, which sighted people seldom know. The letter B works are from one chapter of a much larger work, a sculpted alphabet started in the early 1990s, which by now goes up to the letter L.
Speaking to Creative Feel in 2020, Boshoff explained that:
‘In my Blind Alphabet Project installation, I try to get blind people to help sighted art gallery visitors discover certain philosophical aspects of vision or visionlessness. Most frequenters of art museums and galleries are artists, art critics and art students, who are “visually literate” because they have received special training in arts appreciation. Blind people, on the other hand, need constant guidance and support to cope with things that come easily to the sighted. The average art gallery is not “blind-friendly”. This work focuses on that state of affairs. In the same privileged environment of the art gallery the Blind Alphabet enables the visually impaired to reverse the conventional set-up, by guiding the sighted and interpreting art for them.’
Prizing immersive engagement through the Moving Cube
In 2020 the MTN SA Foundation, who owns 40 works from the series that begins with the letter B, from Babery to Bigeminate, joined forces with the University of Johannesburg (UJ) Art Gallery to host the immersive multimedia exhibition on UJ’s Moving Cube. A digital experience of The Blind Alphabet – Letter B: Babery to Bigeminate was conceptualised. Speaking on the virtual exhibition at the time, Manager of the MTN Art Collection, Niel Nortje explained that the first challenge was to develop high-quality digital renditions of the existing body of work and its accompanying chronicles.
‘The considerable records in the MTN Foundation’s archives on the provenance of Babery to Bigeminate was to be updated to high-quality, engaging digital content that is worthy of this oeuvre of work, while not diverting from the original intention of the Blind Alphabet. Producing such content with the addition of Dr. Jaco Meyer’s remarkable musical renditions for each of the 40 pieces, and the accompanying interviews, was a tremendously interesting and rewarding endeavor, all made possible by Annali [Cabano-Dempsey] and her team’s successful coordination and delivery thereof.’Niel Nortje, Manager of the MTN Art Collection
The 2021 exhibition of Blind Alphabet – Sculpture and Sound once again sees Meyer bringing his innovative musical expertise to Boshoff’s works.
‘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.’
Dr. 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.
Susan van Wyk, Skills and Development manager at BLIND SA adds that ‘The Blind Alphabet Project is levelling the playing field for visually impaired people – not only by welcoming a person who cannot see to the art gallery, but more so by allowing the person who cannot see to impart knowledge to the person with sight.’
The Mentorship Programme and The Educational Programme
In order to extend the reach and scope of this exhibition, the two curators Niel Nortje (MTN) and Annali Cabano-Dempsey (UJ) facilitated two programmes aimed at developing participation in the conversation on issues of the disadvantaged and inequality:
The Mentorship Programme offers three Honours/B Tech students at the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture (FADA at UJ) a first-hand experience of curatorial practice with master classes on collection management, practical in-house label making and marketing. The mentees assisted with the content and the running of the Educational Programme, administrative tasks pertaining to the exhibition, as well as assistance with content development for the digital platform.
The Educational Programme digitally designed for this particular project aimed at learners and students aged 18 to 24 will be run on Instagram. Three video segments that show specific awareness of the visually impaired and visual art in general as well as a focus on the emerging artists and mentees and their experiences as part of the programme will be facilitated by an influencer.
How to attend The Blind Alphabet at UJ Gallery
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 Woesat 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 thelive 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.