For Women’s Month, ArtThrob is collaborating with South African History Online (SAHO) in an effort to highlight women artists who were active in the resistance as well as those currently pushing notions of visual culture for the new South Africa. These women have throughout the years continued to challenge themselves and their position in the field of visual arts as well as in society. They represent some of the best contemporary art in the world and are from South Africa. Read them here.
Jane Alexander is known for her figurative sculptures, often appearing in tableaux and installations, and for her photomontages. Her figures are characterised by their mixture of human and non-human elements and a disquieting presence. This is exemplified in her early work Butcher Boys, which consists of three figures with horns and exposed bone, whiteless eyes and deformed mouths. The three figures wait on a bench, almost casually, pitting their monstrousness against a sense of banality. Made in the mid-Eighties, the Butcher Boys were a response to the dehumanizing effects of Apartheid. The effects of power and domination over the individual is a major theme in Alexander’s work, and has carried through much of her work, from the state-sponsored terrorism of Apartheid through to colonial and post-colonial exploitation.
However, Alexander’s work is notable for its absence of direct political signifiers –even her figures are mostly rendered in a powdery grey– leaving it with an ambiguous edge that remains open for interpretation.
Jane Alexander was born in Johannesburg in 1959. She attended the University of the Witwatersrand where she obtained a Bachelor and a Masters of Arts in Fine Arts in 1982 and 1988. While she was doing her Masters, Alexander produced what became her early signature work of art, Butcher Boys. This is now among the most popular contemporary pieces in the collection of the South African National Gallery in Cape Town. Other major sculptures and installations include Bom Boys (1998), which alludes to the displaced children living on Long Street in Cape Town in the 1990s, and African Adventure (1999-2002), which references colonial residues around labor, migration and land. These themes continue in later work: The sacrifices of God are a troubled spirit 2002-2004, DANGER GEVAAR INGOZI (2004), Security (2006), Security with traffic (influx control) (2007), Infantry (2008-10), Frontier with church (2012-13), and Nativity with detail in polyester suits and industrial footwear (“beyond safety”) (2013, 2016) – tableaux concerning social organisation, borders, security, displacement, and faith.
Jane Alexander’s international career began in 1994 with her participation at the Havana Biennale, followed by selection for the prestigious Venice Biennale in 1995. In that same year she also received the Standard Bank Young Artist Award and a year later she won the FNB Vita Art Now Award. In 2002, her work received further acclaim when she received the DaimlerChrysler Award for South African Sculpture. In 2014 she received the Mbokodo Award for Sculpture.
Jane Alexander’s work has been showcased in numerous exhibitions, collections and biennales around the world including Africa Africa, Tobu Museum of Art, Tokyo, curated by Toshio Shimizu (1998); South Meets West, National Museum, Accra curated by Bernard Fibicher (1999); The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945–1994 curated by Okwui Enwezor (travelled 2001 – 2002 Germany, USA); Africa Remix: The Contemporary Art of a Continent curated by Simon Njami (travelled 2004-2007 to various venues in Europe, Tokyo and Johannesburg); Apartheid: The South African Mirror, Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, curated by Pep Subirós (2007– 2008); Rise and Fall of Apartheid, International Center of Photography New York curated by Okwui Enwezor (2012-14); and The Divine Comedy curated by Simon Njami (travelled 2014-15 to Frankfurt, Savannah and Washington). Solo exhibitions include Surveys (From the Cape of Good Hope), a travelling exhibition arranged by the New York Museum for African Art curated by Pep Subirós exhibited at Brussels’ La Centrale Électrique (2011); the Savannah College of Art and Design Museum, Georgia (2012); the Contemporary Art Museum Houston (2012); and site-specifically installed in chapels and other areas of the Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York (2013). In 2009, a site-specific installation of her work was exhibited in the Galilee Chapel of Durham Cathedral, curated by Pep Subirós and arranged by Ash Amin of the Institute of Advanced Study, Durham University (2009) as part of their annual research theme on ‘Being Human’. She has taken part in the biennales of Havana, Tirana, Osaka, Göteborg, São Paulo, Singapore, Dakar, Venice, and most recently Burning Down the House, the10th Gwangju Biennale in 2014.
Jane Alexander is not only a well known artist, she is also a respected teacher. She is a Professor at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, where she has lectured since 1998.
Alexander’s work is characterised by its social and political concerns, moving from the local level of the street she used to live on, through to global currents of migration and displacement. Her work is often site-specific, being designed and influenced by the locations it is shown in. Many of her sculptures also reappear in different configurations with new addtions and extensions, and in photomontages that situate them into the context of landscape and place. This is described by Anna Tietze: “A notable feature of Alexander’s work is its self-referentiality: an image is introduced in one work and then reused in others so that it acquires multiple associations, encouraging us to see the work as part of a surreal continuum rather than as an isolated statement. A familiar figure or motif from one work reappears in a new setting, carrying with it some of its earlier life and impact but requiring from us an adjustment to its new context.”
Earlier in 2016 Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg showcased a retrospective of Jane Alexander’s photomontages, 1981-1995, and in Cape Town in August, included her Nativity with detail in polyester suits and industrial footwear (“beyond safety”) 2013,2016 on ‘The Quiet Violence of Dreams’, an exhibition tribute to the author Sello Duiker.
Jane Alexander’s African Adventure 1999 – 2002 is currently on view as part of the permanent collection at the Tate Modern in London, in a part of the museum dedicated to Artist and Society.
Lucy’s Iris. Women African Artists is part of a travelling exhibition curated by Orlando Britto Jinorio at MUSAC, Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Castilla y Leon in Spain before going to Musée départemental d’art contemporain de Rochechouart in Rochechouart France, where it will be showcased until December 15, 2016, followed by Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno (CAAM) in Las Palmas City, Gran Canaria Island in 2017.The exhibition features a few of South Africa’s most known women artists including Berni Searle, Tracey Rose and Sue Williamson.
Alexander is a Professor in sculpture at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town.
Jane Alexander: Surveys (From the Cape of Good Hope), edited by Pep Subirós. New York, Barcelona. Museum for African Art and ACTAR. 2011.
Essays and texts by: Pep Subirós, Kobena Mercer, Ashraf Jamal, Simon Njami, Lize van Robbroeck, Jane Alexander, Lucy Alexander, Okwui Enwezor, Ingo Gildenhard, Sander Gilman, Ashraf Jamal, Julie McGee, John Peffer, Ivor Powell, and Michael Sadgrove.
(some republished from ‘On Being Human’)
Jane Alexander. For the DaimlerChrysler Award for South African Sculpture. Stuttgart: Hatje Cantz Verlag. 2002.
Essays by: Simon Njami, Akiko Miki
Tietze, Anna. “Of Beasts and Men” in Jane Alexander: Photo-Book, republished by Stevenson 2016.