Jane Alexander

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Article

African Metamorphoses

The South African artist Jane Alexander constructs creatures that seem kitschy at first glance, yet monstrous and mysterious at the second. As hybrid beings – human bodies with animal heads – they represent human thought and action. Their animal physiognomies embody the psychic state, the conditio humana, of a traumatised multicultural society in the period after apartheid. Jane Alexander, who is white, was born in Johannesburg in 1959. The writer and art critic Simon Njami sees her as "an accessory to a truth and a history which force her, even against her will, to think within the terms of a sick society."
The sculpture "Butcher Boys" was created by Jane Alexander in 1985/86. The sculpture attracted a great deal of attention, was shown in many countries, and is a key early work. In the choice of motifs, material (mainly plaster), and use of colour (or the absence thereof), the sculpture contains elements that continue to play a decisive role in her later work. Like the three Chinese monkeys, three young men with rams’ heads sit tranquilly on a park bench. Dull-witted, unconnected and sated, they may be interpreted as a manifestation of apartheid. In contrast to the Chinese monkeys, none of these three figures can speak or hear: their mouths have been knocked off, like the noses of ancient sculptures; and where their ears should be, there’s nothing but black holes. The expression in their dark, bestial eyes is aggressive, yet it also betrays their suffering. The view from behind reveals that their backs are split open. As rough but spineless beasts, they seem to be waiting for a signal to start fighting; and though we feel they’ll struggle viciously to defend their privileges, it’s a fight that will make both culprits and victims of them all.

In contrast to "Butcher Boys," "Stripped (´Oh Yes´ girl)" depicts an unambiguous victim of violence: a chalk-white, naked martyr, a "Woman of Sorrows" reminiscent of the crucified Christ. With stitches on her throat and legs, she is a corpse roughly patched-up for burial. This work is connected to several others from the 1990s, in which Alexander applies the motifs of Christian art to the situation of South African society. Thus the sculpture "Hit (poor Walter)" from 1995 depicts a crucified man – without a cross – wearing a suit and hat. "Black Madonna" (1991) shows a pregnant black woman in the pose of the Blessed Virgin, and "Integration Programme: Man With Wrapped Feet" (1993/94), depicts a black man lying on the ground. In these two works, Alexander even adorns her figures with haloes.

In the late 90s, Jane Alexander’s cosmos is increasingly populated by smaller figures, often in animal masks, and frequently dressed in suits like miniaturised adults (e.g. "Bom Boys" \1998 and "Racework – in the event of an earthquake" \1999). Some of these mutants also appear in the "African Adventure" cycle, which the artist has been working on since 1999. At the heart of this complex work, whose title alludes to safari holidays, is a large-scale installation. On a red sand surface stand 13 creatures; heterogeneous, motionless and disconnected, they represent a considerable challenge for the spectator.

The central figure is a half-naked man with pale skin and the facial features of a black African. Straps are wound around his hips, with a large number of miscellaneous tools and contraptions attached to the ends: sickles, knives, miniature trucks and tractors trail behind him, like a bridal train, or a plough. Yoked in like a human workhorse, he’s forced to carry the entire burden of physical labour; meanwhile, the other - notably smaller – human and animal figures stand around on boxes and steel drums, or are seated in chairs. The "African Adventure" cycle also includes photomontages, in which Alexander’s mutants, awakened to new and surrealistic life, have become protagonists in Cape Town street scenes.

Most of Alexander´s works deal directly or indirectly with the situation in South Africa. But in "Erbschein: An den Bergen" ("Certificate of Inheritance: By the Mountains"), a highly personal work created in 1995, the artist turns to reflects on part of her family history. It consists of a cube surrounded by the building cranes of contemporary Berlin. Mysterious dark bundles are suspended from these cranes. Inside the cube is a picture of the house in which her Jewish father lived, before he was forced to leave Germany in 1936. In front of the house is a miniature memorial depicting the Jewish people as a reptilian monster conquered by "Aryan" Germans. On top of the cube is a strange hybrid creature reminiscent of the sculptures of Max Ernst; half-man, half-bird of prey, it goosesteps among the cranes. Here, various eras are simultaneously present, interlinked, and still potent - an impression strengthened further by the inclusion of a Trabant car and the "cute" little man from the traffic lights: typical insignia of the GDR. In Germany, as in South Africa, the past is still alive and kicking.

(Translation: English Express)
Author: Petra Stegmann

Bio

Jane Alexander was born in Johannesburg in 1959. Her father’s family came from Berlin. Alexander studied art at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1982 and her Master’s degree in 1988. In 1982, she was awarded the University of Witwatersrand’s Martienssen Student Prize.

In 1987, Jane Alexander began teaching English in Namibia; from 1988 till 1989, she taught art at a secondary school in Cape Town. Between 1990 and 1997, she worked periodically as a curator at the University of Cape Town’s Irma Stern Museum. Her international career began in 1994 with her participation at the Havana Biennale, followed by the Venice Biennale in 1995. In the same year, Jane Alexander also received the Standard Bank Young Artist Award, and a year later she won the FNB Vita Art Now Award. During 1996 and 1997, she taught part-time at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town. In 2000, she received the DaimlerChrysler Award for South African Sculpture

Jane Alexander lives and works in Cape Town. Besides working as a freelance artist, she also teaches sculpture, photography and drawing at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Arts.

Works

Goup Exhibitions (Choice)

Exhibition / Installation
2006 “Singapore Biennial 2006”, Singapur Biennial, Singapore, Singapore “Africa Remix”, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan 2005 “Africa Screams – Das Böse in Kino, Kunst und Kult", Museum der Weltkulturen, Frankfurt, Germany “Africa Remix“, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France „Africa Screams – Das Böse in Kino“, Kunst und Kult Münchner Stadtmuseum, Munich, Germany “Africa Remix”, Hayward Gallery, London, Great Britain 2004 “Photography, Video, Mixed Media II”, Daimler Chrysler Contemporary, Berlin, Germany “Africa Screams - Das Böse in Kino, Kunst und Kult", Kunsthalle, Vienna, Austria “New Identities / Südafrika“, Museum Bochum, Bochum, Germany “Afrika Remix“, Museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf, Germany “Africa Screams – Das Böse in Kino, Kunst und Kult", Iwalewa-Haus, Bayreuth, Germany “DaimlerChrysler Collection for South Africa”, Pretoria Art Museum, Pretoria, South Africa “DaimlerChrysler Collection for South Africa”, Museum Africa, Johannesburg, South Africa 2002 “Zeitgenössische Kunst aus Südafrika”, Kunst: Raum Sylt-Quelle, Rantum, Germany “Zeitgenössische Kunst aus Südafrika”, Kunstverein Zehntscheuer, Rottenburg/Neckar, Germany “Dis/Location, Photo Espana 2001”, Circulo de Bellas Artes Madrid, Madrid, Spain 2001 “Head North, Visual Cultures Dialogue”, Bildmuseet, Umea, Sweden “The Short Century”, Museum Villa Stuck, Munich, Germany “The Short Century”, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany “Africa Today, the Artist and the City”, Barcelona Center for Contemporary Culture, Barcelona, Spain 2000 “7th Havana Biennial“, Wilfredo Lam Centre, Havana, Cuba “Voices of Southern Africa“, British Museum, London, Great Britain “A.R.E.A.“, Kjarvalsstadir, Reykjavik, Iceland “Retreks:unSUNG City, How the other half…”, Kings Parkade, Eloff Street, Johannesburg, South Africa “Partage d’exotismes/Sharing Exoticisms”, 5. Lyon Biennial, Lyon, France “South Meets West“, Kunsthalle Bern, Bern, Switzerland 1999 “Global Art“, Galerie Seippel, Cologne, Germany “South Meets West“, National Museum, Accra, Ghana “Lines of Sight“, South African National Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa “Triennale der Kleinplastik“, SüdwestLB Forum, Stuttgart, Germany “Africa Africa”, Tobu Museum of Art, Tokyo, Japan “Bringing up Baby”, The Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town, South Africa “DAK’Art Biennale de l’art africain contemporain“, Dakar, Senegal “Showing and Telling“, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Johannesburg, South Africa 1997 “Lifetimes”, Out of Africa Kulturfestival, Munich, Germany 1996 “Contemporary South African Art 85-95 from the South African National Gallery Permanent Collection”, South African National Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa “Fault Lines”, Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town, South Africa “Colours – Kunst aus Südafrika“, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany “First National Bank Vita Art Now”, Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa 1995 “Identita e Alterita”, Biennale di Venezia, Palazzo Grassi, Venice, Italy 1994 “Un Art contemporain d’Afrique du Sud“, Galerie d’Esplanade, Paris, France “5th Havana Biennial”, National Museum of Fine Arts, Havana, Cuba “Xit, Election Exhibition”, South African Association of Arts, Metropolitan Life Gallery, Kapstadt, South Africa

Solo Exhibitions (Choice)

Exhibition / Installation
2004 “Jane Alexander“, SANG Iziko Museum - South African National Gallery, Kapstadt, Südafrika 2003 South African National Gallery, Kapstadt, Südafrika 2002 Pretoria Art Museum, Pretoria, Südafrika “Jane Alexander - Sculptures, Collages“, DaimlerChrysler Contemporary, Berlin 2000 “Jane Alexander“, Gasworks, London, Großbritannien 1999 “Bom Boys and Lucky Girls”, University of Cape Town, Kapstadt, Südafrika 1986 “Sculpture and Photomontage“, Market Gallery, Johannesburg, Südafrika

Projects

This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.

The Short Century

Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa

(18 May 01 - 29 July 01)