“To have another language is to possess a second soul”. Charlemagne
The late Cote Ivorian Frédéric Bruly Bouabré also known as Cheik Nadroor ‘he who does not forget‘. Bouabré created a 448 character alphabet of monosyllabic pictograms to represent phonetic syllables for the purpose of transcribing the phonetic and oral tradition of his people, the Bété.
Closer to home is Isibheqe ( isiZulu for beaded Zulu love letters) Sohlamvu, also known as Ditema tsa Dinoko a new indigenous to South Africa visual writing system which has been two years in the developing. Made up of triangles it has been described as a “syllabic script similar to that of Japanese” . The units are based on the symbolic design traditions of southern Africa found in Sesotho mural art or Zulu beadwork. They are considered to be similar to the “Adinkra symbols of West Africa that have informed the development of ancient African writing like Egypt’s hieroglyphs, or Nigeria’s nsibidi”.
Sculptor Stefan Blom also has his own visual language. But whereas Bouabré’s language and Isibheqe Sohlamvu,is interpretable Blom’s is as closed as a tight fist and as impenetrable as the sealed off hideaway in between the bedroom cupboard and the roof of his childhood home. He explains that he “cut a little lid in such a way that when you opened it you could not see it”. There he could be without any disturbances. Blom is dyslexic, Bouabré was not.
In his book “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants” Malcolm Gladwell author and New Yorker journalist unpacks our preconceived notions around what constitutes advantage and disadvantage with a skill worthy of a Zen master practicing kōans. Gladwell informs us that an extraordinary high number of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic –about a third.
One of the chapters is titled “You wouldn’t wish dyslexia on your child or would you?” Gladwell explains that the dyslexic’s brain has less grey matter in the areas of the brain associated with reading and processing words and neurons end up in the wrong place. He looks at cases of two dyslexics who have succeeded, in fact thrived, in spite of their debilitating condition. Gladwell goes so far as to suggest that their success is because of it. David Boies is a top litigation lawyer because in the absence of being able to read easily he learnt to listen and retain information extremely well. Gary Cohn is a really good shares trader (who is also the president of the American bank Goldman Sachs) whose dyslexia gave him the chutzpah of someone with nothing to lose.
As a successful sculptor Stefan Blom may share some similarities. The effects of dyslexia may have marked his psyche like his secret pictogram language tattooed on his forearm and run under the skin of his figure sculptures.
Blom comes from a very religious, strict family. It was also a time when it was believed dyslexia was just being lazy and the so called treatment was to “beat the crap out of you repeatedly” which “happened again and again” to Blom.
Blom was extremely self -conscious “of my inability to write” and found “it was quite painful for me- and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it despite the fact that I was trying to learn more-it just wouldn’t get better.”
At 8 years old he started drawing little symbols that described events “just to remind myself -because there was nowhere else I could tell a story”. The earliest symbol describes a situation involving a tonsillectomy. When the 3 year old Blom found he couldn’t communicate it resulted in a humiliating situation. Years later when Blom looks at the symbol he can still vividly recall every detail of the circumstances - from the colour of the walls to the windows.
The symbols allowed him to hide in plain sight from a mother who wanted to know everything and curious others. “For every single event whether good or bad, I started making little symbols”.
The dyslexia may have prevented Blom from writing a story but later when he started combining the symbols that reminded him of creating things or an emotion he could record them as a drawing.
Luckily for Blom his peers didn’t care whether he could read or write. He was good at sports athletics, rugby and water polo and he could draw well which buffered his compromised self –esteem.
“When I finished the army and decided to do art because basically it was all I could do-I couldn’t go in an academic direction, couldn’t study, couldn’t get through one single book and the subject of history of art would have dragged me down completely.”
Ironically while studying he worked for the organisation that published Harvey comics where he was required to write into speech bubbles. “I can write beautifully” and he copied what he saw. Although Blom had always drawn and painted he first started sculpting by carving into the dried woody roots of plants that grew in the veldt near his parent’s home which suggested small figures and lizards. But his attraction to sculpture really took off when someone gave him a ball of clay.
In 2015 Blom exhibited 11 life-size polychrome fibreglass sculptures at Commune 1 gallery titled DShK, referring to the Russian-made heavy artillery machine gun invented in the 1930’s and nicknamed ‘Dushka’ or ‘sweetie’. His sculptures suggested a continuum between the victim and perpetrator. The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) purchased one the sculptures from this exhibition, Brynhildr, for its collection. He also collaborated with his brother Daniel Blom at Commune 1 in the exhibition the body’s split on a sculpture called grey, grey horse, which has the feel of a 3D Francis Bacon painting. It shows Blom’s technical wizardry and perfection and an understanding of complex sculptural balance.
This is an amended version of the article A Secret Language originally published in the Cape Times on the 30th March 2016