• Alter Egos

    Date posted: January 5, 2009 Author: jolanta
    Acknowledged as one of the most highly regarded artists in South Africa, Jane Alexander is also one of the most reticent, taking the position that her work must make its own statement. Alexander is an artist whose talent was clearly apparent from the start. Her piece Butcher Boys is the most popular contemporary piece in the collection of the South African National Gallery, and chosen by Jean Clair for his show Identita e Alterita (Identity and Alterity) in the Palazzo Grassi at the 1995 Venice Biennale. Butcher Boys was made while Alexander was still doing her master’s degree at the University of Witwatersrand. Image

    Art Throb

    Image
    Jane Alexander, The Butcher Boys, 1985/6. National Gallery, Cape Town. Courtesy of the artist.

    Acknowledged as one of the most highly regarded artists in South Africa, Jane Alexander is also one of the most reticent, taking the position that her work must make its own statement. Alexander is an artist whose talent was clearly apparent from the start. Her piece Butcher Boys is the most popular contemporary piece in the collection of the South African National Gallery, and chosen by Jean Clair for his show Identita e Alterita (Identity and Alterity) in the Palazzo Grassi at the 1995 Venice Biennale. Butcher Boys was made while Alexander was still doing her master’s degree at the University of Witwatersrand. The work consists of three life-size humanoid beasts with powdery skin, black eyes, broken horns, and no mouths sitting on a bench. The beasts are devoid of their outside senses—their ears are nothing more than deep gorges in their heads, and their mouths are missing, appearing to be covered with thick roughened skin.

    Procedurally, Alexander works by building her figures up in plaster on a variety of frameworks, adding found elements like bone or horns. In the case of the “Oh Yes” Girl, a lace collar is embedded into the figure’s shoulders. Oil colors tint the flesh. In recent years, many of the figures have been dressed in purchased or specially made clothes.

    Alexander’s work does not lend itself to easy interpretation. Despite the artist’s silence on the subject, the menacing and eerie figures Butcher Boys, like Alexander’s other sculptures from the late 80s, were understood to be a manifestation of the deeply maladjusted apartheid society. In the years of change, a new series of work was begun, entitled Integration Programme, in which less fearsome but alienated-seeming figures, often hooded, were presented in disturbing tableaux. A second important body of work is Alexander’s photomontages, in which her sculptures take on a history of their own as the frequent subject of her compositions.

    As a student, Alexander was influenced by the socio-political unrest of South Africa, and began creating works addressing the aggression, violence, and suffering within society. Although her sculptures often have an eerie, otherworldly feel, they also manage to project very human psychological states such as alienation, loneliness, and a sense of discomfort or entrapment. The sculptures are often placed in a manner that confronts viewers, forcing them to decipher the ideas present within the work. The impact of Butcher Boys is so immense that it is famous even to those with little knowledge of art. In fact, it was Butcher Boys that established Alexander as an artist, one whose works offer merciless commentary upon socio-political issues, reflecting the disquiet and inhumanity of the times.

    It has been said that Alexander transforms her unique vision of reality into a powerful visual experience, exposing man’s bestiality. To this end, her creations have been described as menacing, theatrical, disquieting, chilling, primeval, fearsome, arresting, and ghoulish. Life-size, life-like, indeed larger than life, these sculptures are the stuff of dreams and nightmares. Alexander’s work is a response to the environment and to issues that interest her. The public, Alexander believes, is drawn to violence; the more horrific the work, the more people look at it. Certainly there is no shortage of evocative material, and Alexander’s works are dramatic and masterful portrayals that leave the viewer deeply moved and disturbed. One critic asked of her piece Bom Boys, “How does one read the Boms?” to which Alexander provides the answer. People should make their own interpretations of her work, she feels, and if it differs from her idea, it doesn’t matter.

     

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