Who is Jane Alexander?

Get to know one of the artists from the Citizens and States display at Tate Modern 

Jane Alexander African Adventure 199-2002

Jane Alexander African Adventure 1999–2002 © the artist

Who is she?

Jane Alexander is one of the most important contemporary artists working in South Africa to have received international recognition. Born in Johannesburg in 1959, her figurative sculptures, installations, tableaux and photomontages are informed by the experience of growing up under apartheid1 and can be read as a response to that political and social environment and what followed in relation to broader global conditions.

What are her key works?

Alexander rose to prominence early in her career, producing Butcher Boys 1985–6, a key work within the South African National Gallery’s collection, while still a student at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. This work consists of three horned life-sized figures, sitting pensively on a bench. They have big black eyes but no mouths, holes for ears and their backs are split open exposing bone. They are grotesque yet vulnerable, without a clear identity. It is thought that this work is a comment on the abuses of power, torture and detention emblematic of the apartheid era. Butcher Boys was selected by Jean Clair for the exhibition Identita e Alterita (‘Identity and Alterity’) in the Palazzo Grassi at the 1995 Venice Biennale, and by Okwui Enwezor for The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945–1994 which travelled in Europe and the USA from 2001.

Bom Boys 1998 explores the vulnerability of displaced children. The figures were based on children Alexander observed in inner city Cape Town, where she lived at the time. Some are hooded or wearing animal masks and it is unclear whether they are predatory or preyed upon.  More recent work has referred to the aftermath of apartheid and global analogies in relation to migration, political and cultural conflict and resistance displayed as tableaux and site-specific installation.  These include African Adventure 1999–2001, Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope) –  an exhibition and site specific installation (cathedral church of St John the Divine in New York) of work produced between 1998 and 2013 and a book (2011), and the tableau Frontier with Church, 201213 commissioned for Simon Njami’s travelling exhibition Divine Comedy.

How are they made? 

Alexander creates her figures first in plaster and then sometimes casts them in fiberglass before completing them with oil paint. In her early works she incorporated found objects like horns and bones into the figures. More recently she has utilised a wide range of found or commissioned clothing, shoes and other objects to dress and accessorise the figures. 

What do the critics say?

(Jane Alexander is) an accessory to a truth and a history which force her, even against her will, to think within the terms of a sick society
Writer and art critic Simon Njami

But in their unlikely combination of human and inhuman natures, Alexander’s poetic monsters are simply messengers…the humanimal [sic] sends out warnings about the consequences of history, while also carrying future promise about what our fragile world may yet become.
Kobena Mercer is professor of history of art and African American studies at Yale University

Alexander in quotes…

My themes are drawn from the relationship of individuals to hierarchies and the presence of aggression, violence, victimisation, power and subservience, and from the paradoxical relationships of these conditions to each other.
Sourced from South African History online

Conceptually, my work is created from considering the interplay of various forms of research and chance observation, comparing issues of daily life as experienced and reported by ordinary individuals with theory, media, marketing strategies, forms of propaganda, and proselytism. Observing and investigating the relationship between human and non-human animal form and behaviour, domestically, in the wild and captivity, and considering the representation of both in the context of the hierarchies, taxonomies and social classification systems that are imposed on them, influences the way I interpret this information.
Jane Alexander 2015