Willem Boshoff, ‘Dark Xylophone’, 2014, SMAC

Mass-production of pointless objects for curio markets in Africa (See Death of African ART) presents some problems. The wood of DARK XYLOPHONE was ‘rescued’ from offcuts left behind by those who turn out masses of wooden objects.

African blackwood or zebrawood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) is found in shops and flea markets all over Southern Africa in the form of curios – mostly animals, trinkets, pseudo-ritual figurines and masks. Although the street vendors sell the wood as ‘ebony’, it is actually registered under the name zebrawood in South Africa. ‘Zebrawood’ derives from the strong black-white contrast of the heartwood, which is almost black, and the white-yellow sapwood. The wood has a hard, elastic texture and thin pieces do not snap easily.

Zebrawood occurs from east Eritrea along eastern Africa to South Africa’s Mpumalanga province. In the north it grows in a band from Senegal to east Eritrea. The tree is threatened in parts of its native range, especially to the south, by its overuse as fuel and by the craft/tourist market.

My enduring attention to the slivers of zebrawood was due to the fact that I wanted to bestow utmost care and respect upon that which could end up as firewood. I was attempting to ‘save’ the splinters by laboriously cutting away at the worm-eaten sapwood. The more durable black heartwood could then be salvaged. After removing the damaged parts, I was left with a bunch of sticks which I honed and sanded to perfect smoothness.

I once made a similar work called STOKKIESDRAAI using camelthorn (Acacia erioloba). The act of sitting still for months on end in sympathy towards something that appears to be lost, might be considered futile. For me, however, it provided many hours in which I could clear my head and find ideas for making new artworks.

Interestingly, South Africa’s darkest wood is black ebony (Euclea pseudoebenus). This small tree grows in the dry river beds of the far Northern Cape, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Many years ago I was given a small stump and discovered that the wood is not at all as elastic as zebrawood. In fact, when sanded, it gives off a fine black powder that stains one’s clothes and hands. Although black ebony can be used to make small wooden items, I have yet to find it in craft markets. - Willem Boshoff

About Willem Boshoff

Conceptual installation artist Willem Boshoff is preoccupied with languages and words—old and new, dominant and subordinate. Boshoff’s works are the manifestation of his exhaustive efforts to uncover obscure words, document dying tongues, or examine the interplay of newly recognized South African languages with their European-tinged counterparts. In Writing in the Sand (2000), the artist used black sand to write words from indigenous languages on a vast field of white sand. His works often mimic the form and function of dictionaries, as in Blind Alphabet ABC (1991-96), a collection of 338 sculptural units, each representing a word in physical form, hidden in boxes and thus only readable by touch. “I work with the idea of knowledge in a package,” Boshoff explains. “How we keep knowledge, package it, store it […] how we process it and manipulate it through art and how we can share it, or publish it.”

South African, b. 1951, Vanderbijlpark, South Africa