The Afrikaans title REËNWAG is analogous to Rembrandt’s famous painting NIGHT WATCH (Afrikaans NAGWAG). A night watchman’s job is to guard a building or other installation at night. A related Afrikaans word is brandwag – the sentry posted to look out for enemy activity or other threat. A troupe of baboons usually has their brandwag posted on an outcrop to scout for approaching danger. The implicit meaning of the word is to guard against fire – brand in Afrikaans means ‘fire’. Brandwag is widely used in Afrikaans: The Ossewa Brandwag was a self-appointed political organisation, guarding over the course of events in the first half of twentieth century South Africa and Die Brandwag was the first Afrikaans illustrated family magazine in the Transvaal. Several places are named Brandwag like Brandwag high school in Benoni and the Brandwag hotel in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. The name REËNWAG is made to go with the nagwag and brandwag and to me a reënwag is a lookout, posted to attract precipitation and to tell of approaching rain.
I took my cue from the custom of the Modjadji rain queen of the Balobedu tribe, resident in the Limpopo province. She is renowned for planting mysterious corner posts at her royal quarters believed to bring rain and good luck. When visiting the rain queen one is welcomed to her household by their silent presence. In the arid climate of South Africa these rain posts are of cardinal symbolic importance to guarantee rain at the right time. The traditional posts from Modjadji are round shafts with a minimal figurative aspect – a vague hint of a human head at the top. Through time and endless lashings of rain the wood became gnarled and heavily textured, showing rivulets of dry grain.
I have a preference for simplicity and I am inclined to favour minimal features in my work – “less is more.” I studied various types of posts that might invoke the idea of rain and to this end, I found the corner posts in the fencing of the farms in the vicinity of the granite quarries around Belfast most appealing. Like the Modjadli rain posts, their strategic placement on the farm makes one feel that they await and observe one. Their surfaces already have a rough corrugated effect caused by the drill holes used to prize them from the bedrock. I wished to polish these ripples to such a shiny state that they would look as if water or rain was running over them.
On site at the Dippenaar residence in Plettenberg Bay a few aspects of the landscape played on my mind when, in conversation with Estelle Dippenaar, I decided to make three vertical sentries in dark reflective stone. I wanted the work to integrate with the endless repetition of waves crushing down on the sandy beach at the foot of the property and to reflect the hazy skies above and the vistas of blue and grey mountains on the far-away horizon. The setting of natural vegetation on the sand dunes around the work projects a sense of ageless calm.
For my works in granite, I collaborate with Frans Haarhoff from the Boschpoort quarry near Belfast in Mpumalanga province. His quarry is no longer in use because it became too expensive to process the stone, but Belfast Black granite remains the darkest and most valued granite in South Africa. On the quarry Frans has a factory in which he operates a range of procedures to handle granite in an industrial sense. We have worked together since the end of the 1990’s when we made KRING VAN KENNIS (CIRCLE OF KNOWLEDGE) a large ring of eleven granite sculptures for the Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg). Frans’s father began the quarry in the 1960’s and Frans’s position as foreman on the plant gave him a knowledge of how to cut and haul large blocks from the quarry and how to dress and polish them. The situation of having thousands of rejected blocks littering the quarry with a very competent quarry master makes Boschpoort Granite a sculptor’s paradise.
Granite is an igneous rock. Thousands of millions of years ago, in its prehistoric life, granite had been a molten liquid lava substance that had solidified to obtain its present form. If one dresses and polishes granite, it begins to glow and glisten in the same ‘wet’ modulations that might have been characteristic of its appearance in bygone times. This rippling, moist shine on the surface of the stone is of course very suitable to my idea of establishing posts that appear to engage with rain and humidity.
The physical work on the stones is very demanding. Sizing, grinding and polishing the REËNWAG posts took a small team of labourers about ten months. The first set of rain posts we cut from a solid block of granite turned out to have hair-line cracks in them. These cracks threatened the structure of the posts and because we were not prepared to risk the cracking-up of the work in transport or under the harsh temperature differences of the Plettenberg Bay climate, we abandoned our early efforts and started from scratch by cutting three new pieces.
Looking back at my fixation on those cornerposts of stone on the Belfast farms, I realise that like other stones, they are enduring and set in their place, but unlike the other stones they display a stark, erect stature that stands out in the rocky hills of the highveld landscape. In sharp contrast to these man-made monoliths are the fields of slender highveld grass. Two species of thatching grass dominate: blue thatching grass (Hyparrhenia tamba) and common thatching grass (Hyparrhenia hirta). I marvel at the vulnerability of the lean grass when matched with the strong, robust posture of the stone posts. The posts appear unchanged by countless seasons, impervious to sun and rain, but the grass withers and disappears under the onslaught of fire and seasons. I wish for my REËNWAG to carry this contrasting aspect of formidable strength against defencelessness and I therefore placed lines of text to resemble stalks of grass at the base of each granite post.
In 1980, I published an anthology of visual poetry entitled Kykafrikaans, and since then I have occasionally used Afrikaans in my artworks. Because I am a language artist I also make artworks in other languages, but I mostly use English in my work because of the obvious advantages of taking such works to galleries and exhibitions abroad. The stalks of grass sandblasted on the REËNWAG posts are in Afrikaans because the negotiations and preferences for the work with Laurie and Estelle Dippenaar were in Afrikaans. Like the Highveld grass, the young Afrikaans language appears to be vulnerable and exposed to continuous onslaughts from critics and pressure from other languages. A long list of more than fifty quotations that reflect a regard for the theme of rain were collected and edited down to 27.
One of the quotations was omitted because Laurie Dippenaar made a life-long career in banking and the quotation seemed somewhat disparaging. It turned out my worries were unfounded because he gave a good-humoured chuckle and told me this was the one quote I might just as well have kept on the work:
“A bank is a place where they lend you an umbrella in fair weather and ask for it back when it begins to rain. Robert Frost (’n Bank is ’n plek waar hulle jou ’n sambreel leen as dit mooiweer is net om dit terug te vra as dit begin reën.Robert Frost)
The quotations are read from top to bottom and have their lower endings in line with the bottom end of the work to make them look like thin stalks of grass growing on the ground
The following quotations were used:
Stone 1 on the left
- I always like walking in the rain, so no one can see me crying. Charles Chaplin (Ek hou altyd daarvan om in die reën te loop want dan kan niemand my sien huil nie. Charles Chaplin)
- Rocks need no protection from the rain. Malawian Proverb (Rotse het geen beskerming teen reën nodig nie Malawiese gesegde)
- Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass, It's about learning to dance in the rain! Anonymous(Die lewe gaan nie daaroor om te wag dat die storm moet verbygaan nie, maar eerder om in die reën te leer dansAnoniem)
- Rain does not fall on one roof alone. Cameroonian Proverb (Die reën val nie net op een dak nie. Kameroen gesegde)
- If there is magic on the planet, it is contained in the water. Loren Eisley(As daar nog ’n wonder oor is op die planeet, dan lê dit in die water. Loren Eisley)
- Don’t be so much in love that you can’t tell when it’s raining. Malagasy Proverb (Wees nooit so verlief dat jy nie kan sien as dit reën nie. Malagasiese gesegde)
- The heaviest rains fall on the house that leaks most. Japanese Proverb (Die swaarste reën val op die huis wat die meeste lek. Japanese gesegde)
- Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky. Rabindranath Tagore (Die wolke dryf my lewe binne, nie soseer om reën in te dra of om storms in te lei nie, maar om kleur aan my sonsondergang te gee. Rabindranath Tagore)
Stone 2 (in the middle)
- A promise is a cloud; fulfillment is the rain. Arabian Proverb (’n Belofte is ’n wolk en die vervulling daarvan is die reën. Arabiese gesegde)
- It rained on the mountaintop, but it was the valley below that got flooded. African Proverb (Dit reën op die bergpiek maar dit is die vallei daar onder wat oorstroom word. Gesegde uit Afrika)
- Let us keep the dance of rain our fathers kept and tread our dreams beneath the jungle sky. Arna Bontemps (Kom ons eer die dans van die reën soos ons vaders dit gedoen het en kom ons loop met ons drome deur die woude van die hemeruim.Arna Bontemps)
- The drop of rain maketh a hole in the stone, not by violence, but by oft falling. Hugh Latimer (Die druppeltjie reën maak ’n gat in die klip, nie deur magsvertoon nie, maar deur aanhou val.Hugh Latimer)
- If rain bothers you, you can always jump into the sea. Chinese Proverb (As die reën jou pla kan jy altyd in die see loop spring. Sjinese spreuk)
- The best thing one can do when it's raining is to let it rain. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Die beste wat ons kan doen wanneer dit reën is om dit te laat reën.Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)
- One can find so many pains when the rain is falling. John Steinbeck (Ons ontdek so baie pyne as die reën val. John Steinbeck)
- A rose must remain with the sun and the rain or its lovely promise won't come true. Ray Evans (’n Roos moet die son en reën trotseer anders word sy mooi belofte nooit verwesenlik nie.Ray Evans)
- It is best to read the weather forecast before praying for rain. Mark Twain (Dit help om die weervoorspelling dop te hou alvorens ons vir reën bid. Mark Twain)
Stone 3 (on the right)
- Let the rain kiss you. Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops. Let the rain sing you a lullaby. Langston Hughes (Laat die reën jou soen. Laat die reën jou hoof bespat met silwer druppeltjies. Laat die reën vir jou ’n wiegeliedjie sing.Langston Hughes)
- Anyone who says sunshine brings happiness has never danced in the rain. Anonymous(Iemand wat voorgee dat sonskyn geluk bring, het nog nooit in die reën gedans nie. Anonymous)
- Two lovers in the rain have no need of an umbrella. Japanese Proverb (Twee verliefdes in die reën het geen sambreel nodig nie. Japanese gesegde)
- Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man's growth without destroying his roots. Frank A. Clark (Kritiek, soos goeie reën, moet sag wees, genoeg om die mens se groei te stimuleer sonder om sy wortels te vernietig. Frank A. Clark)
- Rain is grace; rain is the sky descending to the earth; without rain, there would be no life. John Updike (Reën is genade; reën is die hemel wat tot die aarde neerdaal; sonder reën sou daar geen lewe wees nie.John Updike)
- An old friend met in a far country is like rain after drought. Chinese proverb (’n Ou vriend wat in ’n vreemde land verskyn is soos reën na ’n droogte. Chinese spreuk)
- Rain does not stay in the sky. Finnish Proverb (Reën bly nie net in die lug hang nie. (Finse gesegde)
- The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain. Dolly Parton (Ek sien dit so – as jy die reënboog wil hê moet jy die reën verdra. Dolly Parton)
Willem Boshoff 2012