SA's 12th official language

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By: 
Ufrieda Ho
Publisher: 
The Star
Published Date: 
2008 Nov 12

The best way to get from point A to point B? Get to a pavement and stick a finger in the air.

Millions of South Africans who are taxi commuters know this tool of communication only too well.

But Sandton-based artist Susan Woolf didn't have a clue and that's why about two-and-a-half years ago she decided to get to the bottom of the meaning and origins behind taxi signs and signals.

Armed with an open mind and often also with chocolate cake, Woolf got to know taxi association bosses in the city.

They welcomed her interest and the intention of her novel project to catalogue the hand signs. She swapped her identity of curious outsider to a participating observer, becoming a regular feature at taxi ranks from Faraday to Alexandra.

"Hand signs are mostly determined by the drivers. In the early days the different taxi associations each had their own signs but now the signs denote a specific destination and they vary from region to region," she says.

She found more than just straight-forward explanations to the signs. She found gaps in the system that she felt could be patched, she found out about the intricacies and simple common sense involved in gesticulation as language and she gained insight into the huge division between the haves and have-nots in this country as represented by those who are car owners and the taxi commuting public.

Says Woolf of what sparked her interest: "I used to drive around and look at people waiting for the taxis and wonder how the signs came about and how people know what sign to use when.

"Then when I started my research I found that not everybody knew the range of taxi hand signs that are necessary to get everywhere in the city.

"You often still have to ask a fellow commuter or a taxi marshal what sign to use and people are not always that willing to help when they've also got to rush from one destination to the next themselves."

Woolf also realised that it's not just the driving population that is excluded from taxi hand signs but also those who are blind and can't easily tap into this non-verbal form of communication. For this reason, her directory of taxi hand signals, which was published last year, boasts a Braille-based section for blind commuters.

The conceptual artist came up with the 12 Braille-like shapes that are the basis of the combination of the hand signs needed to get across the province. The end result is a directory that features Woolf's cheerful and whimsical drawings but is thoroughly practical and engaging.

The directory may be a guide and a reference for the taxi commuting public, but Woolf adds: "This is not just for locals, but also for visitors to our country for 2010 and beyond."

The catalogue's hand signs are uniquely South African; it doesn't get more local than a sign showing a cupped hand with open fingers signalling a ride needed to Orange Farm - the hand shaped as if it's ready to grasp an orange.

Woolf doesn't veer far from her artistic roots either. She says the hand signals and taxi industry as a whole provide great conceptual art ideas.

She plans to create outdoor sculpture pieces as a celebration of this significant slice of South African life. Already Woolf's hand sign drawings have been earmarked to be part of a SA Post Office stamp series that will be issued in 2010.

Woolf begins a cross-disciplinary PhD next year.

She will extend her research and analysis of the taxi hand signs and the complexities of this often controversial industry for her thesis.

It will merge the disciplines of art and anthropology to explore this unique 12th language of the country.

Woolf's recent work, "Towards Mandela", was included in the Madiba at 90 exhibition at Constitution Hill. Her current exhibition, called Jacob's Ladder, incorporating conceptual images of hand signs as they depict the country's politicians, is on at Artspace in Parkwood until November 22.