South African artist Jane Alexander has long had a penchant for mutant sculptures. Over her four-decade-career, she has created a host of hybrid characters, imagined from the bodies of human beings and the heads and limbs of baboons, rabbits, and jackals. Now Alexander’s motley cast of characters is heading to the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston for an exhibit titled “Surveys (From the Cape of Good Hope). The exhibit will display sculptures, installations and photomontages that reflect Alexander’s persistent interest in the interplay between human and beastial life.
Jane Alexander’s “African Adventure”
Alexander’s history of hybrid fascinations dates back to the 1970s when she was creating sculptural work as an art student in South Africa. Using powerful animal-human mutants to explore issues surrounding apartheid, she gained international attention with a 1980s exhibit titled “Butcher Boys.” In the work, the artist depicted a trio of powerful, mouthless humanoid beasts that, though sitting casually on a beach, appeared like threatening sentinels on guard.
The artist’s monstrous creations only multiplied from there. In her 1998 “Born Boys” installation, Alexander created scenes of children wearing menacing rabbit, bird and cat-head masks, who, despite standing in close proximity, seemed entirely disconnected from each other and their surrounding space. Similarly, “African Adventure” shows a group of smartly dressed humanoids standing on varying levels of a dirt space, staring into the spaces beyond the installation without any interaction between the figures.
Her ghostly humanoid creations are firmly rooted in her South African experience, but Alexander has focused on the universal themes apparent in her latest installation. “These issues would be particularly accessible to an American audience because of our common histories of discrimination and segregation,” she told The Savannah Morning News.
Alienation is clearly a primary theme of Alexander’s art. Not only do her frightening hybrids demonstrate an easily perceived disparateness, but the ambiguity of the monsters pushes the viewer to sense their otherness in relation to them. Even the photo-collages created by the artist seem to communicate this alienation, as the familiar muscular forms and costumes of the beings clash with their carnal faces, amounting to a heightened sense of what doesn’t belong. It’s a feeling that Alexander experienced growing up amidst the social injustice inflicted by apartheid laws. Yet while her work addresses the oppression she witnessed in her home country, it reveals only the entrenched complexities of the time period, portraying motionless animal-human blends that appear simultaneously as victims and aggressor.
Jane Alexander’s hybrid mutants speak to the porous borders between humans and other forms of animal life. Alexander acts as a surveyor mapping the forces, interests, and passions at play in human behavior. Her sculptures, installations, and photomontages are firmly rooted in her South African experience. They also transcend their locality, revealing the disparity felt every day around the world between the rhetoric of peace and decorum and the human capacity for oppression and violence. Alexander’s body of work throws into relief the asymmetric relations and practices that preclude access for so many people to a free and dignified existence.
Jane Alexander: Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope) is a major exhibition of works by important South African artist Jane Alexander and is organized by the Museum for African Art (MfAA), New York, and supported, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts. It is guest curated by Pep Subirós.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Jane Alexander, born in Johannesburg, South Africa, works primarily in sculpture and photomontage and is widely known for her sculpture, Butcher Boys (1985-86) in the collection of the South African National Gallery. Alexander’s solo exhibitions include Jane Alexander: On Being Human (2009) at the Galilee Chapel of Durham Cathedral, Survey (2009) at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, Jane Alexander (2000) at Gasworks in London, and Bom Boys and Lucky Girls (1999) at the University of Cape Town, Irma Stern Museum. Her artwork has been exhibited widely in international group exhibitions including the Venice, Havana, Gothenburg, Tirana, Bamako, São Paulo, Singapore, and Dakar biennials. She has also participated in such group exhibitions as Africa Remix (2006) exhibited in Europe, Japan, and South Africa; Apartheid: The South African Mirror (2007) in Spain; Personal Affects: Power and Poetics in Contemporary South African Art (2004) in the USA; and The Short Century (2002) in Germany and the USA. She currently teaches at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art.