In OH! I place the word ‘oh!’ and a host of pretty plastic dolls on two base boards in a kind of diptych. These boards are covered in two thick blankets made of various bits of coloured yarn and cloth that give the impression of a Jackson Pollock painting. Jackson Pollock is one of my all-time favourite artists.
The word ‘oh’, especially with an exclamation mark, has played a decisive role in my philosophical disposition.
As an Afrikaans speaking twelve year old I loved reading and in my last year of primary school, in 1964, I often read two paperback books a day, many of them in English. The school was named after the founder of our town, Hendrik van der Bijl, and I was in a class of rather noisy, but also keen children.
Our teacher and vice headmaster was Mr Ackerman, a capable and fairly conservative man who sported a well-kept moustache. That moustache occasionally haunts me in the middle of the night still.
My parents had moved to the town a year or so before and I was relatively new to the school. Mr Ackerman knew most of the children well and when it came to choosing the prefects, he put up a strong defence for his choice of head boy. Although I was nominated for the post, my old friend Louwtjie was duly appointed and I had a suspicion that Mr Ackerman needed to prove himself correct.
Sitting next to me in our class was the head girl, lets say she was Miss B., a pretty doll-like girl as I remember, and a clear favourite of Mr Ackerman’s. During an English class Mr Ackerman gave us a sizeable piece of fiction to read silently. We were told to prepare a shortlist of words with which to test each other’s spelling.
I had to put my choice of words to Miss B. and when I made my small list, I thought to myself that she would select somewhat difficult words from the passage. The trick to winning this skirmish was to check out all the difficult words and to choose such a word as no one would expect. At the top of my list was the word ‘oh’.
When it was Miss B.’s turn, she asked quite a difficult little poser and fortunately I spelled it flawlessly. I then asked her loudly but very politely to spell ‘OH’.
Now ... ‘OH’ is of course pronounced ‘o’ and it is a strange word, especially to children whose home language is Afrikaans. In Afrikaans ‘ou’, also pronounced ‘o’ can mean ‘bloke’, ‘chap’ or ‘old’. I could see the panic in Miss B’s beautiful blue eyes and Mr Ackerman could also see that she was in trouble. He immediately came to her rescue and told me to choose another word – where do I get this ‘oh’ from, surely it isn’t even a word. Somehow I remained resolute and replied that it has two letters and that it is in the passage. OH is my word!
Unfortunately Mr Ackerman did not see it my way and kicked me out of the class.
‘Oh’ happens to be my word and I have more than fair reason for calling this exhibition OH MY WORD!