I worked as a teacher at Park Town Boys' High School from 1975 to 1977. The headmaster of the school, Mr. Jimmy Cameron, gave me permission to teach extramural wood carving classes and I found a suitable room underneath my classroom. This room was used as a general dumping place for coal, bits of wood and loads of junk - the pupils called it the dungeon. It took me a week to clean out the room. In a box, under the rubble I found an old British flag. It was badly damaged from years of usage. Mr Cameron told me that the flag goes back to before the school was founded and that it was already in use at the turn of the century. The school appreciated all the hard work I was doing and Mr Cameron said I could keep the flag. The wood carving classes were so successful, I later began my own sculpture school.
I looked well after the flag and thirty years later, in 2007, I took it out again. I reasoned that, since I found it at a school with lots of pupils, I should try and see what happened to children when the flag was flying, at the turn of the century, in 1899 and 1901. Those were the years of the Anglo Boer War, also called the South African War. The war actually ended in May, 1902. During this time the British armed forces coerced all 'enemy' children, their mothers, sisters and elderly people into concentration camps that were kept for the last fifteen months of the war. There was a treaty in place, signed in 1875 by Great Britain, that forbade the capture of woman, children and the elderly. The British military commander, Lord Horatio Kitchenener, said that the treaty did not apply to the Anglo Boer war because it was only agreed to by European countries. Through misunderstanding or ignorance of the harsh camp conditions, the British caused the deaths of about 32,000 black and white children under the age of fifteen in those last few months.
I value the old British flag I have, and I decided to make it into an artwork without causing it the slightest physical damage. Its scarred appearance told a story. I could therefore not glue, paint or cut it. I mounted it on softboard with a sombre black background. To keep the flag down without damaging the material I stuck close to 32,000 small black mapping pins into it - one pin for each child that died needlessly. The 32,000 pins are arranged in 32 blocks, each containing very nearly a thousand pins. The blocks are formatted to bring to mind the memorial gardens for the First and Second World War in Europe.
1. The title plays on the word 'vexation', but far from it - vexillology is the study of flags or a flag. The vexillum is a military flag or a group of men fighting under a banner. A vexillator is a flag bearer - from Latin vehere 'to carry'. A vexillum is also a conspicuous flag-like petal on some flowers.
Willem Boshoff - Beyond The Epiglottis