Willem Boshoff: Big friendly druid

Exploring the everyday with a legendary South African artist.


The artist. Picture: supplied.


Within 15 minutes, I have stared at paint splotches on tar, stacks of planks, abandoned signs, the grooves on a worktable and, through barbed wire, a waiting train. A gaggle accompanies me, led by Willem Boshoff, whose progress through this film prop workshop nudged up against Cape Town railway station is even slower than my own. 

Boshoff stoops to investigate, taking close-up pictures of the seemingly insignificant. As he has told us earlier, he is seeing how the bones have fallen from this city’s giant hand. 

We are doing what Boshoff calls a Druid Walk. Late last year, he took curious Capetonians on a dozen of these, luring them to unusual, oft-ignored spots – such as the old Rhodes Zoo, and the backstreets of Woodstock and the Bo-Kaap. Boshoff does not dispense much wisdom on these. For him, as much as for us, they are personal journeys – and his exhortation is clear: to see patterns in the ordinary, the abandoned; to embrace the texture of the mundane, looking properly, as if for the first time. 

By the time I see Boshoff again, it is January. His Druid in His Cubicle installation, which featured many objects from his personal collection at the Cape Town showroom of SMAC Art Gallery, has long been packed up. 

Sounds of sawing interrupt the quietness of his street in Kensington, an old neighbourhood in southern Johannesburg. His son Martin, an industrial designer who shares his house, lets me in, and takes me upstairs.

Boshoff makes me tea in the neat kitchen, and we go to his bedroom – he has been banished from his study so that he doesn’t wake up his grandson. We sit down in front of his big iMac.

In late March, Boshoff will be at the Klein-Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees with a new iteration of his Druid cubicle installation. And so I’m here to find out more about the journey of one of South Africa’s most acclaimed artists – a genius who has mentored countless other creatives at universities across the country, whose work has been exhibited at institutions around the globe, including the Reina Sofía in Madrid and the Smithsonian in Washington. I am here to find out why this man describes himself as a druid – a moniker he has used for several years now. And what does this even mean? 

“I don’t know what to say, really, because it’s difficult to talk about myself. I sort of live, and then [when] people ask me to explain myself I get a fright,” Boshoff tells me when I first ask that question. 

Boshoff is not one for punchy soundbites – his answers are more meditations than replies. Questions spark reflections which shoot down fascinating by-ways. His conversation is, in some ways, emblematic of his art – which often reveals his love of words and meaning, but also exposes the breadth of his interests. While it defies a crisp summation, if there is an underlying thread to his vast body of work – whether in prints made or wood carved – it is that it is always motivated by his principles, his views, his emotions.

College taught him “how to look”. “They called it to be ‘visually aware’,” he says. He admits his work is more conceptual than the “traditional” work he did at college. “I think I must try and do something beyond just paint pretty picture,” Boshoff says.

He takes me back to his Vanderbijlpark childhood where he discovered a love of words and of plants. Today, thousands of books line the shelves of his house; outside, hundreds of trees grow in pots.

These passions – words and plants – converged in 1997 when he produced The Garden of Words i when, having identified nearly 4000 plants, he wanted “to show how far I’ve got with my plant studies”. Almost two decades later, he has studied 33,000 species.

“I take long travels to far away places to see plants. I don’t really know why,” he chuckles. He thinks, though, that “it’s got something to do with the extinction of plants and with caring for one’s environment and being in tune with nature.”

His art is a response to things he feels strongly about.

“I still get upset when I see people overreaching their authority.” In 2004 he exhibited work criticising the US invasion of Iraq, for example.

“I’m a protestant, I guess, but in the real sense of the word. I’m more against things than for things, very often. I want freedom to differ,” Boshoff says. Allegiance to a party or organisation undermines his freedom to speak out if he dislikes something that its leadership does. He says: “I don’t believe in boundaries” – whether political, religious or philosophical. 

“The word ‘definition’ has to do with boundaries,” he says. “Who am I? I am defined by my boundaries, and they’re philosophical and cultural and all that. But I’m trying to ignore or bridge or negate them.” 

“I believe that everything impacts on everything else and there should be interaction between all of the words and things and people. And having boundaries prevents interaction,” Boshoff says. 

This mindset has been moulded through decades-long grappling. Emerging from a conservative upbringing in which apartheid permeated every aspect of social life, Boshoff embraced a radical Christianity which compelled him to become a street preacher. In the army he refused to carry a gun and got in trouble for his proselytising – the conscript was condemned to peeling potatoes as punishment. 

His religious fervour waned in the 1970s as he began to question the harsh treatment meted out by the Israelites to the Palestinians in the Old Testament.  “I don’t think I can call myself a Christian anymore,” he says. “I’m a pacifist.” 

It is perhaps this drift which allowed him to engage with pagan histories and the concept of the druid. In 1993 he visited the UK’s stone circles like Stonehenge, sampling cuttings of herbs “like Getafix and Asterix comics” which he used to make artworks. Druid’s Keyboard in 1997 – 36 pebbles made of different kinds of wood – remarked on the transition from stone to paper in the way we communicate. 

In 2000 his INDEX OF (B)REACHINGS exhibition showcased 85 pieces connecting African practices of divination with European ones.

It was only in the mid-2000s that his identification as a druid properly crystalised, however. After years of intense pain (which he had treated with a combination of relentless art-making and red wine), Boshoff was diagnosed with extensive lead poisoning – a result of sanding down the leaden paint of old wooden doors he was selling to cover the costs of his first divorce. As he underwent painful chelation therapy to remove the lead, he read extensively about druids, sangomas and inyangas. He realised that while the names varied, the concept was a universal one – wise elders were essentially doing the same thing in ancient Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia, Africa and Europe.

Boshoff read that both sangomas and druids are reputed to go through a near-death experience, but then live. This found resonance in the therapy, which undoubtedly saved his life. 

Boshoff also read that the word inyanga means “man of trees” or “man of plants”. “Druid” stems from the Greek word for nymph, which means an essence that is “married to the forest”, he says. He came to the conclusion that “maybe I’m a silly little druid”, he says. 

Mindful of the New Age connotations of the word “druid”, I ask him if he believes he has special powers.

“There’s nothing superstitious. I am able to listen to people, and I don’t pretend to have any answers. I do what I always did. I’m trying to call [myself] something that more or less fits,” he says. When people engage with him, he doesn’t “make any claims to be a clinical psychologist or a doctor. They talk more than I do, usually.”

The Goodman Gallery asked Boshoff to submit a proposal for an installation at the 2009 edition of Art Basel. The result was the first iteration of Druid in His Cubicle.

He wanted to call himself “a shitty little druid, and then I thought I can’t call myself that. I thought because I’m a bit big, I’ll call myself Big Druid. It’s not as if I heard God calling me – I don’t believe in that.”

The word “cubicle”, he tells me, stems from the Latin word cubiculum – a place where you can lie down, which he has to do often because of the pain in his legs from his persistent peripheral neuropathy (the damage caused by the lead to his peripheral nervous system).

In his proposal, he explained he needed a space where he would work and sleep and keep “weird stuff that I have”. “There were no flashes of lightning or any special gurus or anything: this is what I am and what I do, and that’s it,” he says.

As with subsequent iterations of the installation – at Joburg’s Arts on Main in 2010, and in Cape Town last year – decisions on which items to include for display were influenced by practical considerations – what wouldn’t get damaged, what would fit in the crate. Most were functional – tools of measurement; objects used for divination; a selection of walking sticks.

Boshoff has been collecting all his life. The house is crammed full of objects – scales, weights, functioning typewriters, tools – but somehow avoids feeling cluttered; perhaps because everything is meticulously ordered.

We walk around, and he comments on things – the paintings bought from a bankrupt friend in desperate need of money; his carpenter father’s woodwork table; his son Martin’s exquisitely crafted, yet unostentatious, wooden cabinets. 

“I’m not allowed to have ornaments,” he says. He’s a fan of Shaker furniture because it’s beautiful but functional. “I prefer something that’s simple,” he says.

I ask him if he’s ever been burgled; they haven’t, he says – he thinks thieves are scared off by the animal skulls.

Boshoff has cut up souvenirs people have given him into pieces “I think the people who make the crafts are exploited. Craft is the death of African art. It’s an artificial thing that’s done for the pleasure of people all over the world who really haven’t studied anything, who just take cheap shots at getting a bit of Africa.” He uses the destroyed curios to throw the bones which, he says, “is nothing to do with seeing beyond – it’s to do with just how you think, your mind.”

“You have to learn to look,” Boshoff says. “Suddenly you will see relationships and suggestions configurations and suddenly it falls open.”

“You didn’t choose the parents that you were born to. Choices fall into your lap. And every day, lots of things go past, and the big secret is to make something of them, is to turn them in your favour.”

Since 1996, when he left his post as associate director in the art department of Wits Technikon (now the University of Johannesburg), Boshoff says he’s been flying by the seat of his pants. 

“It’s incredible what’s happened in the last 17 years. I’ve been all over the world and I’ve seen a lot of stuff, and I’ve done weird things, and I’m very happy with what’s happened.” 

Although he gets tired, “I haven’t slacked down with my work rate,” he says. With two children still studying, he says, “Every year I have to have this very big exhibition, otherwise I can’t put the kids through school.” But he’s not complaining. “I like making art.  I made my own bed,” he says  – literally, as it turns out. “Somehow I’ve landed doing this. It’s basically living by the throw of the dice.”

Residencies, exhibitions, marking and mentoring means he’s often travelling. He uses these opportunities to explore, through his (often solitary) Druid Walks, landscapes as varied as Cradock and Jerusalem. Maybe one day you’ll see him stomping about with his walking stick, camera around his neck, seeing the patterns oblivious to passersby. It’s an invitation to pause, observe, and start seeing them too.

This a revised piece of an article that first appeared in the March 2014 edition of Wanted magazine.

One thought on “Willem Boshoff: Big friendly druid

  1. Glad to see Willem still remembers “college taught him “how to look”. “They called it to be ‘visually aware’,” he says. Yes, that was in my Perceptual Studies Course. It was in this class that I encouraged students to find themselves, find something to do or say and develop the means most appropriate to communicating their ideas, no matter what. Willem was most probably required to work in a more “traditional way by my “enemies” at the Johannesburg College of Art. ————He admits his work is more conceptual than the “traditional” work he did at college. “I think I must try and do something beyond just paint pretty picture,” Boshoff says

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