Blind Alphabet – art for touching
In the early 1990s, South African artist Willem Boshoff created 340 carved wooden objects inspired by unusual and seldom-used English words. Boshoff was a collector of words: “I had realised that many of the words I collected had to do with form and texture, the basic constituents of sculpture…” Each carved object demonstrated the meaning of a word: the objects describe the words – rather than the other way round.
He called this work The Blind Alphabet. The carvings themselves are not meant to be seen so much as to be touched and explored with the fingers: they are concealed from view in metal boxes. Each word and its meaning is written in Braille on the lid of the box. This work was primarily intended for people who cannot see: another reversal of expectations in the world of visual art, usually the art of the visible. But as we have been discovering, it can also be the art of the tactile.
When first shown, blind people guided sighted people around the Blind Alphabet exhibition – reversing the usual relationship between the sighted and the blind. “To put sighted people at a disadvantage I needed to impose upon them a sense of the disappointment blind people suffer when they are restricted. The way I ‘blind’ sighted visitors to the artwork is to hide the sculptures in small boxes, under wire mesh. The art gallery’s signs reading ‘Don’t Touch’ prevent them from opening the boxes… the lid on every box is inscribed with a text in Braille” – a written language that blind people can read but which is foreign to most sighted people.” And so the sighted become dependent on the blind.