Willem Boshoff is one of South Africa’s leading conceptual artists. He was born in Vanderbijlpark in 1951. Boshoff’s father was a master carpenter. Like many a craftsman’s child, the young Boshoff learnt many of the skills that would later shape his art in his father’s workshop. Against the wishes of his parents, he enrolled to study art at the Johannesburg College of Art (now incorporated into the University of Johannesburg). He abandoned his studies in his fourth year to become a lay preacher, giving his worldly possessions away, to take the word of Jesus to the streets.
Boshoff later left the confines of institutional religion, but an element of the transcendental remains present in much of his work. This has been especially manifest in his Big Druid persona, which developed following a protracted twenty-year period of debilitating illness, which was eventually diagnosed as lead poisoning. As a result of his bad health, Boshoff was unable to sleep, which forced him into a “particularly strange and unusual lifestyle … not unlike that of a reclusive monk”.
In many ways, the Druid is a metaphor for the artist, and ultimately for Willem Boshoff himself. “Just like the fine artist the Druid must train him or herself to look. Both must be visually aware to be able to make social deductions,” he explains. Like an artist, the Druid has to establish where the individual fits into a social context, and how power relationships play out, but without joining the fray. Boshoff elaborates, “The Druid does not belong to anything. I don’t belong to a religion or to a club. All religions are wrong and all religions are right. I won’t belong to a society or a political party, so I don’t vote. I am all things to all people, and nothing to nobody. I am myself. I take what I like from all religions, and I reject what I don’t like from all religions.” In this sense, the Druid is also an emblem for Boshoff’s cheeky rebelliousness and defiance of the society in which he finds himself.
In this exhibition, elements of divination and the Druid combine with social protest to produce a range of works that cajoles the viewer to further interrogation. Characteristically, Boshoff does not present a straightforward stance, but rather goads us into asserting our own.
Willem Boshoff, the Big Druid, is a wordsmith and a maker of images. His interests range widely across the fields of botany, literature, and geography. He has made concrete poetry, written dictionaries, sculpted objects and constructed installations. He is a seeker of words, names, plants and objects, which he uses to make his art. Everything is material for making art, every word and every detail in the natural world is imbued with meaning and can be appropriated or spoken of with zeal. Boshoff’s work has been shown at many major museums all over the world and he has been included in Biennales in Johannesburg, Havana, Venice, and Saõ Paolo, as well as the prominent Basel Art Fair.