Jane Alexander's Psychological Taxidermy
by Kathryn Smith
I have always wondered what children must think when confronted with Jane Alexander's work, especially the more recent tableaux - the 'Bom Boys', 'Lucky Girls' and protagonists in her 'African Adventure' series. I should imagine children see eye to eye, quite literally, with these dwarfed figures. Their half-human, half-animal status is not dissimilar to imagery conjured up in cartoon shows. Whereas adults may find them disquieting to the point of being existentially threatening (because they give form to unspoken, repressed anxieties, guilt and estrangement), children love the titillation of a good scare, coming face to face with the potential threat of monsters in the wardrobe, because the monsters are a product of their combined imaginings, and the wardrobe is really only a place to store, and evolve these fantastical creatures. Figments of one's imagination are, after all, completely at one's mercy.
A friend reported that her grandchild was enthralled by Alexander's current DaimlerChrysler exhibition, as if coming face to face with old friends, heroes and 'familiars' all at once. The 'realism' of some of her earlier work, full of 'monsters' as it was, has made way for a slightly more obvious Surreal language system, but almost paradoxically so. I say this as her earlier works, monsters ('Butcher Boys') and more realistic figures alike ('Integration Programme', 'Something's Going Down') seemed to inhabit a psychological space rather than a recognizable locale. With her harbingers, cadets, bom boys and lucky girls, and now the 'African Adventure' series, Alexander's clothed, urban mutants refer now to specific contexts with allegorical overtones. The 'realisms' to which her recent works allude are not detracted from, but rather exaggerated by their fantastical nature. The beauty of allegory is in full force here, giving rise to subtexts, intertextual references and 'life lessons' in new manifestations of complexly layered realities.
Jane Alexander is famously reticent. An intensely private and limelight-shunning artist, her persistent determination to let her work communicate exclusively without her commentary is admirable. Her reason for this: some say she is afraid of losing her identity in a world where perception and assumption mask 'the truth'. As Simon Njami writes in the catalogue accompanying this exhibition, "human beings cannot be seen for what they know themselves to be'.
Both are opinions that seem supported by her work, especially those featuring masked, hooded or anthropomorphic figures. It is Alexander's job to find physical, often grotesque forms to peel away the skins of diversion, paradoxically by masking, hooding and mutating. In this exhibition, this reticence is rendered explicit in her choice of work for the show, her careful control of the space with apparently minimum effort and in her extraordinary self-awareness and consistency since producing such profound work as a Masters student at Wits University ('The Butcher Boys' again).
This exhibition continues that work. Nothing is frivolous, no decision is contingent; everything is deliberate, with all extraneous detail eliminated.
A quick scan of Alexander's CV reveals a careful and strategic choice of exhibitions, few solo shows and very little group show exposure in South Africa. Like Alan Alborough, who deals with questions about his work with similar tactics - saying nothing or very, very little - she chooses her exhibition contexts carefully. It is possibly this desire to wait for the right moment to strike, as it were, that adds to the perception of her as distant, private, not approachable. If you have a penchant for reading the work an artist produces as an indicator of their internal psychological landscape, you have enough to keep you interested for some time.
The DaimlerChrysler exhibition revolves around her most recent body of work 'African Adventure', a phrase that conjures the exotic promises of tour operators, as well as nostalgic colonial fantasies. Instead of showcasing entirely new work, Alexander has introduced this tableaux exhibition with 'Integration Programme: man with TV' (1995) and 'Integration Programme: Man with wrapped feet' (1993 - 4). The protagonist of the former, a suited black man sits staring at a small black and white monitor, which wasn't working when I visited the show but for the record shows a white man incessantly adjusting his tie in a reflection. The latter is immediately ahead of you as you enter the hall, climbing down or 'hanging' from the wall surface in a semi-foetal position, feet wrapped in a black sack and his head framed with a gold disc (halo?). The ground on which he lies is brilliant Giotto-blue.
'African Adventure 1999 - 2002' is the show's centrepiece, a tableau/installation originally conceived for the British Officers' Mess in the historically-loaded Cape Town Castle. The original, filmed version featured a refugee from Kinshasa, as himself. The same man features in a DVD triptych, also on this show, entitled 'African Adventure 2001: Meal with Harvester and Grain/Congo Honeymoon'. The tableau features a menagerie of characters, including Custodian, Doll with industrial-strength gloves, three child-sized crooner/evangelist characters ('Radiance of Faith') standing on TNT boxes, Girl with Gold and Diamonds, Settler (in an ancient toy car), Ibis and Pangaman, a reference to the actual serial killer who became an urban legend to scare children and metaphor for the 'swaart gevaar'. Dogs and monkeys feature as 'familiars', accompanying and supporting this strange procession. String tied around legs make them appear like escapees. An observing monkey sits on a chair against a wall, his blank, smug stare prompting memories of too many policeman behind charge office counters, staring blankly as you report personal trauma.
The DVD soundtrack of shaking maraca's interrupted by the call of what sounds like a fish eagle, carries over the entire hall and is remarkably appropriate for all the works on show, which include a mini-monument titled 'Erbshein: An den Bergen' (1995), dealing with anti-Semitism and displacement, and the photomontage series 'African Adventure' (2000). The monkey of the shaking maraca's dances on a screen placed between 'Meal with Harvester and Grain' and 'Congo Honeymoon'. The former depicts a man eating at a table, which is cleared by the Kinshasa refugee, overseen by the same smug monkey perched atop a pile of sacks. The latter is compiled from found footage of a trip across Southern Africa up to the Congo in 1943. It is subtitled as if Alexander was being taken through the footage by its maker, provided with key word prompts to recall important moments: Tsetse fly control, groom, bride, Zambezi, curios, pontoon, water carriers, Sir Otto Beit and so on.
This exhibition introduces a new kind of narrative to Alexander's oeuvre, not only within her recent tableaux, but which stretches back to incorporate her early works into an overall schema. It occupies a slippery, quiet space, where the places between things are as weighted as the physical objects themselves. As Akiko Miki comments, Alexander's work demonstrates "an aesthetics of restraint that seeks artistic integrity in controlled immobility". It's an unusual, uncanny form of psychological taxidermy.
Note: if you need extra incentive to see the exhibition first-hand, the handsome catalogue sells for just over half (R150) of what it would cost you in Exclusive Books (about R280).
Closes: January 12
Pretoria Art Museum, corner Schoeman and Wessels streets, Arcadia
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