From the outset of her career, Jane Alexander—born in 1959 in Johannesburg, South Africa, and reared in the thick of Apartheid—has created sculptures that contain, in their silent, tensely arranged forms, histories of human failures. Butcher Boys (1985–86), part of Alexander’s submission for her master’s degree at Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand, was her public debut—and widely recognized in South Africa as a ferocious anti-Apartheid tableau, with its three horned, scarred, masculine figures, nude but with their genitals sculpted as blank and sealed shut.
Alexander has gone on to sculpt a host of figures, each of which is individually titled and used interchangeably in various site-specific installations, photomontages, and photographs: Harbinger, Custodian, Ghost, Lamb with stolen boots, and Monkey boy are a few of the most frequently recurring, as are groups of figures such as Convoy and Bom Boys. All these figures, like the Butcher Boys, appear to a range of observers as both anthropomorphic animals and zoomorphic humans, or what Yale University History of Art and African American Studies professor Kobena Mercer calls humanimals; they are rendered out of materials such as ceramic, fiberglass, and bone, and dressed in clothing ranging from found shoes to a prisoner's uniform from pre-democracy South Africa.
In 2002 Alexander had her first opportunity to arrange a site-specific installation—African Adventure (1999–2002), a commentary on colonialism, identity, democracy, and the residues of Apartheid—in the British Officers’ Mess of the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. Since then she has organized several other such labor-intensive installations outside of South Africa, with each fragile figure having to be wrapped in tissue and then bubble wrap, numbered, and packed into wooden crates lined with special dunnage before being shipped via air and/or truck to the exhibition site. In 2006 Alexander was invited to the first Singapore Biennale, where she created the installation Verity, Faith and Justice in a city hall courtroom to comment on parallels between the state of the justice systems in that country and South Africa; Harbinger, Monkey boy, and Lamb with stolen boots were among the characters that traveled there. The following year Alexander installed Security with Traffic (Influx Control) in Barcelona, offering a combined commentary on African migration through Morocco to Spain and police states in the twenty-first century; Custodian, Ghost, and Convoy made appearances there, as did several other characters.
Each of the above-mentioned installations is represented in the following pages, alongside a photograph of Infantry (2008–10), an installation of twenty-seven marching African wild dog–humans; Harbinger in correctional uniform, lost marsh (2007), from the collection of photomontages and single shots Alexander has taken of her humanimals in South African landscapes both rural and urban; and a photograph of Butcher Boys. To better convey each tableau’s full scope and complexity, the captions detail all materials used and all sculpted figures (shown or not).
Alexander’s first major North American survey exhibition, guest curated by Pep Subirós and organized by the Museum for African Art in New York, began touring in 2012. Its first stop was the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia, where a Savannah Morning News reporter asked Alexander about her work’s potential reception in the United States. She said, “These issues would be particularly accessible to an American audience because of our common histories of discrimination and segregation, and the continued presence of and the lack of resolution in their legacies.”
Jane Alexander is a professor at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art. Her work has traveled for the DaimlerChrysler Award and the Standard Bank Young Artist Award in South Africa and Germany, and she has been featured in solo exhibitions in New York, Durham, London, Brussels, and Houston. She has participated in numerous group exhibitions and biennials including The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945–1994 (2001–02) in Berlin, Munich, Chicago, and New York; Africa Remix (2004–07) in Düsseldorf, London, Paris, and Tokyo; and Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life (2012–13) in New York.
Art © Jane Alexander/DALRO, Johannesburg/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, except where otherwise noted.