Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Thoughts on Prison Hacks/Prison Sentence by Willem Boshoff #art

For what it's worth, here's what I've written for my visual literacy module at varsity with regard to South African artist Willem Boshoff's Prison Hacks/Prison Sentence...

As a conceptual artist, Willem Boshoff challenges his viewers to consider the interplay of words, textures and visual elements, and in the case of Prison Hacks/Prison Sentences (2006, installation of black Zimbabwe granite slabs; Constitutional Court, Johannesburg) it’s important to take into consideration not only the name of the work and its execution, but the materials used and the location in which the work is installed, as all have bearing on the ultimate meaning and, consequently, the choice of name. It can also be argued that the decision to change the name of the work is also part of the overall presentation of the installation and the understanding that one can gain from discussion of this discourse.

In considering Prison Hacks/Prison Sentences, attention should be paid to the materials used in the installation. Boshoff’s choice of black granite – a type of material used often for headstones in cemeteries – is not arbitrary, when he says: “I chose the black granite as it is the material of a graveyard. It is also the material used to build memorials.” (Boshoff 2012) Stone lends permanence; it is a lasting reminder that endures after brick has crumbled and wood has rotted. The use of granite and the reference to headstones draws viewers’ thoughts to other associations, such as death, and the memorialisation of lives that have passed. The location of the installation also has significance, in that it is situated on the premises of the Constitutional Court, the work therefore suggestive as memorial to the injustices of the past.

The granite slabs themselves have been polished to a high sheen and engraved with the kinds of marks used by prisoners to denote the passing of time – especially in an environment where an inmate has limited or no contact with the outside world. Boshoff states: “Each prisoner counts the days of his or her sentence already served by scoring a vertical hack through each day. After six days a diagonal is scored across the verticals to close a week of days. This is done on a wall, in a private place, perhaps in a cell or toilet.” (Boshoff 2012) This bears a direct correlation to the original title, Prison Hacks. To hack something suggests a crude movement, to cut, to carve, but connotations of the word also suggests the activity of someone who isn’t doing a particular good job of something (for instance, a bad writer is sometimes referred to as a hack). Perhaps at a stretch, the word “hack” can also relate to an activity of someone accessing information off a computer system without permission. According to Boshoff (Boshoff 2012) he preferred Prison Hacks “because a hack is a term for a person hired to do dull routine work, but also means a line that you draw through something”, with each ‘hack’ representing a day of the prisoner’s sentence.

Wordplay is an important element of Boshoff’s art, with many of his works featuring typographical elements: “Boshoff often refers to the etymological link between the words ‘text’, ‘texture’ and ‘textile’, which can all be traced to the Latin texere … textured surfaces often suggest that they can be read, with the eye or the hand.” (Vladislavic 2015, p. 28) which encourage a sense of engagement between the viewer and work that transcends a passive audience. Initially, Boshoff created three slabs covered in hacks, denoting the time served by Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada, however he was later commissioned to create the full complement of panels, and during that time Boshoff fell upon on a name change for the work. The wordplay associated with “sentences” can be read in two ways. The most obvious connection would be to the time periods indicated in the work, the actual prison sentence served by each of the men. The secondary meaning refers to the spirit of Boshoff’s work, that results in a dialogue between artist, work, and viewer – a dialogue, a conversation – a sentence. (Vladislavic 2015, p. 28)

This fluidity of meaning elicited by Boshoff’s work engages the senses. The work is tactile, and as the name change suggests, the work has been open to dialogue during the process of its creation. The name change can be viewed as a refinement, of taking the rough, unfinished work and completing it to initiate a conversation as opposed to the initial marks that were put down, suggestive of a finality, resignation. A sentence invites discussion, takes the “hacks” further and leads the viewer to make conclusions.


Vladislavic, I. 2015. Willem Boshoff. Johannesburg: David Krut Publishing. Pages 26-32)

Willem Boshoff Artist 2012, Prison Sentences, Boshoff, W. Available from: <>. [16 August 2015].

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Butcher Boys

Here's an idea of what I've been studying this year. This is one of the questions from my Visual Literacy module at varsity. (Also, my lecturer for some bizarre reason did NOT like me comparing these chaps to Frankenstein's monster, but I'll stand by my opinion on the matter.)

Picture: Wiki Commons
Upon first sight, the ominous figures of Jane Alexander’s The Butcher Boys (c. 1985/86. Mixed media, size unknown. Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town) strikes casual viewers with the vision of diabolical monsters lurking upon an ordinary wooden bench; however a closer view of the trio suggests that these so-called perpetrators of apartheid may also be considered victims of the very system they are proposed to uphold.

Alexander’s The Butcher Boys presents viewers with an undeniable, arresting focal point, especially considering where they have been placed in the Iziko Museums National Gallery – on their bench prominently positioned in the entrance hall, which makes them one of the first works that confronts visitors. A close examination of the sculpture reveals the figures’ lifelike poses and great attention to realism that has imbued the figures with physical menace. They are life sized and present an ominous blend of human and animal that immediately draws the eye and elicits a visceral response, much in the same way that bystanders feel compelled to stare at the scene of an accident. As passive bystanders, viewers are placed in a situation where they are confronted by a work that elicits a range of responses that are open to interpretation.

If anything, a viewer’s possible initial response of revulsion and macabre fascination, may lead to the sense that these entities pose a very real threat thanks to their powerful, well-defined musculature and positioning that give semblance to the potential of sudden movement made frightening by the unholy addition of horns. Their eyes, too, set them apart – dark and liquid, like that of an animal, possibly unthinking, fearful and feral. Their sickly, clay-like complexion suggests a skin tone that is neither black nor white, but is neutral and possibly diseased, even. Darker blemishes on their necks and by their damaged spines are suggestive of weeping wounds that have not healed. The figures represent an anomaly – constructs that should not be, like Frankenstein’s monster, composite beings made up of the discarded parts of others. Through a process of dehumanisation, these once well-proportioned human individuals have become perverted effigies; their physical bodies have been twisted into a parody of mankind by their taking on of bestial qualities. This is summed up by John Peffer, who writes, “Through the graphic distortion of the body and its metamorphosis into a beast, artists posed trenchant questions about the relation of corporeal experience to ideas about animality, community, and the sacred.” (Peffer 2009, p. 71) Alexander’s The Butcher Boys, through the addition of animal horns, bestial eyes, removal of ears, emasculation of the genitalia, and muting of the mouths, in addition to mutilation of the spine and throat, are a discomforting blend of human and animal that cannot simply be ignored. The choice of incorporating animal horns into the sculpture not only suggests the bestial metamorphosis akin to the Minotaur in its ancient Cretan Labyrinth – the product of a transgression against nature and the gods – but considered in a largely Western (and Christian) context, is also suggestive of the diabolical.

Context is important when viewing The Butcher Boys, especially considering the circumstances in which it was initially released. As Peffer writes, “During 1985 a state of emergency was declared in South Africa in response to renewed outbreaks of violent resistance, and was renewed yearly until 1990. The police were again given wide-ranging powers for the forceful suppression of popular protest, including the detention and interrogation of suspects without trial. Over thirty thousand people were detained between 1986 and 1987. During this period, Jane Alexander produced a sculptural group, The Butcher Boys (1985-86).” (Peffer 2009, p. 75) This climate of fear meant that South Africans could not be outspoken about or stand against conditions within the country. The Boys are mute – Alexander has created them without functioning mouths; it was not possible for South Africans to speak out against the oppressive government at the time, without fear of reprisal. With their ears removed, The Butcher Boys are incapable of hearing, suggesting that they’d be unable to hear pleas for mercy. The fact that their throats have been tampered with indicates that their vocal chords may be affected, on top of them not having functioning mouths. Exposed, damaged spines may also suggest a “spinelessness” or cowardice – further indication of either an inability or incapacity to resist, to act. Much can be read into the choice of their poses as well. The figure on the left seems relaxed, indifferent almost, as if he is waiting, resigned to his state of being. The figure in the middle, and the one on the far right, both give the appearance of paying attention to events the one on the far left hasn’t noticed (or won’t) yet. The Boy in the centre is alert, watchful, yet it is the one on the far right that suggests that he is about to move. Whether this reaction will result in a fight-or-flight response, is not made explicit, and it can be suggested that this conclusion can be left to the discretion of the viewer. The figures’ realism adds to the suggestion that each Boy is poised on the cusp of movement.

Friedrich Nietzsche's aphorism 146, from Beyond Good and Evil, resonates strongly a possible conception of Jane Alexander's The Butcher Boys: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into the abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” (Nietzsche 1990, p. 102) The process of creating a monster goes two ways; through becoming the perpetrator of a broken, repressive system, of people who are shaped into tools for a greater evil, whose worldview is narrowed to the point where the “truth” that they are fed is limited (as illustrated by the Boys’ limited senses) the Boys themselves are victims, damaged and lashing out in much the same way as the Greek Minotaur or Frankenstein’s monster – unable to feel empathy and enslaved to their bestial natures that are enforced on them by authority figures.

Primarily, the Boys evoke horror. As Bick states, “Alexander’s work activates the space of viewership with the psychic and visceral experience of horror that continues to haunt us as we turn away, but more importantly, her work is itself haunted by experiences of untold, traumatic, and often irretrievable histories, which on the one hand seem outside the ethics and even capacity of representation … and on the other, without reflective and critical attention, are in danger of becoming lost to the past.” (Bick 2010, p. 32) We confront the Boys in a public space, in a gallery, where they lurk as a visible reminder of our inconvenient, unspoken past. Now, thirty years after their creation, they “confront the public secret of apartheid head on, not only by ‘giving evidence’ which could not be admitted in public or by the (white) public to itself. (Peffer 2009, p. 77) The Butcher Boys offers viewers a solid reminder, one that is presented, and based on the perception of the manner in which they are seated, of an unhurried watchfulness; their physicality suggests that they’re not just going to go away; they’re here, waiting, immovable, implacable. They evoke a primal reaction, of fear, very human yet reduced to instinctual responses. They have come into being through the action of a repressive system, to induce terror at a primal level, not only to be scorned but to be viewed with pity, for having been damaged so that they are no longer equipped to function within society nor adapt to changing circumstances.

Cognisance must also be taken of how socio-cultural context changes through the passage of time. Over the years, the possible meanings and interpretations of The Butcher Boys may shift thanks to the cultural biases of viewers; those who were born after 1994 may perhaps not draw upon the same sense of outrage as those who were present during the 1980s, when apartheid’s stranglehold experienced its last, reflexive gasps. There are those who are adult now, for whom the realities of detention without trial and enforced national service are relegated to a few lines in reference books. We are no longer faced with a visceral sucker punch of the intense horror, and though The Butcher Boys are mute, they linger as sentinels to this past – lest we forget.

As to whether The Butcher Boys were either victims or perpetrators of the apartheid system this question cannot, therefore, be considered as an either/or kind of situation. The Butcher Boys are both. As individuals they have been stunted by the system that has used them as enforcers of violence. Therein, ultimately, lies the tragedy, that through their dehumanisation they have been turned into the very monster that one should fear. Their contorted, physical forms are a reflection of the underlying social trauma that South Africans have faced under the yoke of an oppressive regime. The Butcher Boys are a reminder of the bestial actions perpetrated against thousands of South Africans, that have turned the perpetrators into monsters; yet at the same time we cannot forget that these so-called monsters were once human too, twisted into objects to fear and pity as a result of their actions.


Bick, T. 2010. Horror histories: apartheid and the abject body in the work of Jane Alexander. African Arts. Winter: 30-41.

Nietzsche. F. 1990. Beyond Good and Evil. Penguin Group: London. Page 102

Peffer, J. C2009. Art and the end of apartheid. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (Chapter 2: Becoming Animal. Pages 41-72).

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Elfish Gene by Mark Barrowcliffe #review #memoirs

Title: The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange
Author: Mark Barrowcliffe
Publisher: Soho Press, 2009

Warning: If you’re hoping this is a book extolling the virtues of fantasy roleplaying as a positive outlet for socially marginalised teens then WRONG. This is not the book you’re looking for. Step away while you still can and go read some fanfiction. What The Elfish Gene is, however, is Mark Barrowcliffe’s memoirs of growing up in Coventry during the 1970s, and how as a completely gauche, socially maladjusted teen he fled into the world of fantasy RPGs because he simply couldn’t cope with reality.

This is a tragic book. And it made me incredibly sad. Mark comes across as bitter about his past, possibly bitter about the fact that he was so lost in the games that he wasn’t functioning in society. These are not the types of memory I have of my own gaming days, and after finishing this book, I almost feel tainted. I ask myself, is this how I am with regard to the books, games and films I get excited about? To the exclusion of participating in the world at large?

Then again, I don’t recall the sheer, blithering nastiness of my fellow gamers that Mark does. Possibly, one can say that boys will be boys, but I’m an anomaly in that regard – a girl who likes her fantasy RPGs a little too much. Sure, I met a few like Mark at the few events that we had in Cape Town during the 1990s, but I avoided them. The rest of the folks were just incredibly fun to be around, all student types, and we had really good times.

What I got from The Elfish Gene is mostly Mark’s bitterness, suggestive of deep-rooted self-loathing, that he had to dig deep and bring up all that was ugly. And, yes, it’s easy to see how games like D&D can create festering little dick-measuring contests among folks, but FFS, there’s more it than what he states.

Yes, there are bits that are genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, like Mark’s Ninja escapades, but most of the time I felt I was laughing *at* him for being such a sad puppy, and I was really glad to be done with the book. Yes, also to the fact that Mark pokes sticks at valid issues with the social interaction with *some* gamers, but yikes… I needed to read something uplifting and joy-making after this. As a snapshot into a particular era, however, and the mentality of the people at the time, this book is fascinating, in the same way as one is sometimes compelled to rubberneck at the scene of a gruesome motor vehicle accident involving a drunk pedestrian, errant livestock and a lorry transporting manure.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Author profile: Elizabeth Myrddin

Today's featured author is Elizabeth Myrddin, who's part of the Guns & Romances anthology which is available at Amazon, Kobo and Smashwords, among others. 

Who are you?

I live and work in San Francisco. I write for fun, with an emphasis on mysteries, suspense, horror, and dark fantasy, but I’ll try anything three times.
Tell us more about your story and what you enjoyed about writing it.

Romance and erotica stories are not my cup of tea, but I did want to challenge myself, and to stretch my writing limits. After a few halting starts (and a searing sense of frustration that nagged at me to give up), I went with the tried-and-true method of “write what you know.” Inspiration harvested from my life experiences, the various people, situations, and environments helped shape the story. The trickster demon transference idea came from a random article I read on the internet. It was a lot of fun figuring out how to incorporate that detail into the story.

I worried about relegating the guns to mere set dressing instead of as featured components in the action. I’ve gone to gun shows in the past, and loved the vintage firearms and war memorabilia booths, and the gun show setting was the first thing that popped into my mind when I began the story. I’m glad I stuck with it. Once I decided to pepper "Not Just Another Daddy’s Girl" with non-traditional or unusual elements, I was finally able to focus on the progression and accompanying uncertainties of the romance buildup between Vic and Haddie (and the strangeness that occurred later). Before I knew it, the story became a joy to write. This surprised and pleased me. The best result of this story, aside from its acceptance into the Guns and Romances anthology, was discovering that I could write a “romance-based” storyline and like it.

Why do you think short fiction is important?  

Short fiction offers a wide variety of tales, characters, voices, and scenarios for the reader to choose from and enjoy. Short fiction provides an endless array of entertainment or escapism. ApƩritifs for the imagination.

What is your favourite short story?

How can I limit it to one? I’ll go with the one that affected me the deepest upon first reading it. I now have more of her work in my bookcases than any other author. The story is "Stained With Crimson" in The Book of the Damned by Tanith Lee. In that same volume are "Malice In Saffron and Empires Of Azure" – stories that also brought me to tears upon first read. For me, the impact of Tanith Lee’s writing is indelible and her works will forever be awe-inspiring.

Have you got upcoming projects you'd like to talk about?

I wrote a two-part mystery story and those books are available on Amazon. That project was a blast, and I learned that with enough focus and effort, I could actually finish something longer than a short story. Currently, I’m reading and exploring gothic suspense and working on a novella. When needing a break from the WIP, I work on short stories to submit willy nilly. Two stories are out for submission and the wait to hear a yay or nay is ongoing.