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Jane Alexander - Racework

  8 February 2010     Archived

Racework – in the event of an earthquake, one of Jane Alexander's most appealing and affecting sculptures, was made in response to Alexander's visit to Tokyo, where she was invited to show the Bom Boys on the exhibition, Africa Africa at the Tobu Museum of Art in late 1998. Identical to each other, the Racework figures make reference to preconceived ideas about difference, exoticism, and stereotypes based on visual markers, and with that, assumptions, discrimination and prejudice based on appearance.

Racework was exhibited at the University of Cape Town’s Irma Stern Museum in 1999 where, in a hand book accompanying the exhibition, Lucy Alexander explored the iconography of the work:

This pair of boys dressed as men overtly exhibit compliance with social norms, dress, sobriety and restraint: in turn they will be rewarded and given leave to control. One is suited for the West; the other is masked for the East ...

The work rests on issues of identity; both figures remake their identity in the cast of another’s more powerful, more controlling set of rules; thus they displace one set of imposed ‘racial’ or ‘cultural’ stereotypes and replace them with another. ... A shadow being disrupts their calm: a mischief-maker between them, dragging his booty, a tractor and a scythe, symbols of ‘a better era’, a ‘lost utopia’.

Affixed to the back of the kimono of one of the figures is a facsimile of a hotel document in Japanese script giving instructions for what to do in the event of an earthquake, alluding to massive underlying forces with the power to disrupt equilibrium and ‘to the well-controlled society which is prepared for all eventualities’.

Various elements of Racework recur in Alexander’s African Adventure photomontages produced between 1999 and 2000.

Jane Alexander is widely acknowledged as one of South Africa’s foremost contemporary sculptors. Since completing her BAFA and her MAFA at the University of the Witwatersrand, she has continued her professional art practice while teaching sculpture at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art. She “works mainly with figurative sculpture installation and tableaux, and photomontage. Her research interests include migration, security, and contemporary art production in Africa and the Diaspora as well as its reception, distribution and marketing within an international context”.

Winning the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for 1995 brought Alexander wide recognition. The Butcher Boys (1985-1986), the most popular work in the South African National Gallery’s Permanent Collection, has been exhibited extensively on major international shows and is regarded as one of the most important works of contemporary South African art achieving iconic status amongst connoisseurs and the general public alike.

In 2002 Jane Alexander was awarded the DaimlerChrysler Award for South African Sculpture, enabling her to produce her solo exhibition that toured to DaimlerChrysler KonzernZentrale, Forum Stuttgart-Möhringen; DaimlerChrysler Contemporary, Potsdamer Platz, Berlin; Pretoria Art Museum, Pretoria and Oliewenhuis Art Museum, Bloemfontein, from 2002 until 2003 before its final showing at the South African National Gallery, Cape Town, where Racework – in the event of an earthquake was included.

Alexander brings to each work a sensitivity to particular socio-political issues and a broad empathy with human behaviour and conditions. Her finely-honed sensibility, attuned both to the emotional register of her subject and to the formal qualities of her medium, results in compelling works. Racework is a fine example of her acute powers of observation coupled with extraordinary technical skills. The figures are cast in fibreglass from modeled plaster and then convincingly painted to achieve an extraordinary naturalism that is nevertheless tempered by disquiet.

Jane Alexander’s sculptures are highly sought-after. They are rarely available, seldom sold in South Africa and have never before come up at auction.


i Jane Alexander, personal communication, 1 February, 2010
ii Jane Alexander, ‘Notes on Selected Artworks’. In Jane Alexander: DaimlerChrysler Award for South African Sculpture 2002, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Germany, 2002, p119
iii Lucy Alexander, “Bom Boys” and “Lucky Girls”, UCT Irma Stern Museum, Cape Town, 1999, unpaginated