Surveys from the Cape of Good Hope
Jane Alexander was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1959, and currently lives and works in Cape Town where she also teaches at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town.
From its inception in the early 1980s, while South Africa was still under the rule of the apartheid regime, Alexander’s artistic practice has been deeply sensitive to socio-political issues as a part of her interest and observation of human and other animal behaviour in and beyond her own social environment. That is, her concerns do not refer so much to issues, ambitions, and conflicts around conventional political power as to the all-too-frequent drift of all varieties of power relations that consolidate into permanent structures and regular routines of authority and control, often instrumental in oppression and abuse.
In Alexander’s approach social conditions and phenomena, even when taking place at a global scale, and individual processes, even when strictly subjective, are not considered and elaborated as independent from each other but investigated and expressed as two tightly interdependent, inseparable realities or, better, as a single reality with two facets.
In other words, her artworks explore simultaneously both the social and the individual phenomenology of human existence and behaviour, as well as its “rational” and its not so “rational” components.
In this regard, her “humanimals” –to borrow Julie McGee’s fitting neologism –, embody and may prompt us to consider the porous borders between humans and other forms of animal life.
To this extent, all of Alexander’s work deals with our inherent hybridity and mutability, with the multiple “others” that inhabit us behind the conventional characters that we successively impersonate in our everyday life.
The result is a multifaceted and open-ended body of work that defies categorization, different artworks by the artist highlighting different dimensions among the multiple and often conflicting motivations and relations that converge in human behaviour and social life.
Having created the most powerful artistic expressions of the evils of apartheid –most notably her Butcher Boys (1985-86) during a State of Emergency–, at the turn of the millennium, when South Africa was reinventing itself as a multicultural, equal-rights democracy, Alexander shifted her focus to the translation (or lack of it) into everyday conditions of life of the deep political changes the country was going through. At the same time, she extended her field of references to situations and processes that, even if still grounded in local realities and observations, clearly overflow national frontiers. The resilience of racial-based prejudices and forms of discrimination; the reproduction of neocolonial forms of domination; the ever growing obsession for security and the parallel
global proliferation of fortified borders and systems of surveillance, are some of the dominant themes of Alexander’s recent work.
As in the apartheid period though, Alexander’s approach to these problematic phenomena has continued to be akin to that of a nonjudgmental surveyor mapping the forces, interests, passions and effects at play in human relations and exchanges. In so doing, her artworks transcend their locality to show everyday existence being torn everywhere between the rhetorical constructs that argue for a peaceful and decorous life, and the unruly human capacity for conflict and violence.
In her search, however, the artist doesn’t indulge a morbid fascination for the dark side of being human, but recognizes our enormous potential for resilience, agency, and dignity in the face of adversity and deprivation as well as the fear and vulnerability of individuals in positions of power and command.
The combination of individual figures, tableaux, installations and photographic work from the last decade presented in this exhibition offers viewers a rare opportunity for exposure to the variety of Alexander’s surveying strategies and to the ample scope of her artistic universe.