Racework – In the Event of an Earthquake (1999)

4 March, 2013

A special showing was held in July 2010 at Spier in celebration of having acquired the remarkable sculpture Racework: in the event of an earthquake (1999) by Jane Alexander.

Preferring not to be interviewed on her practice, critics often refer to Jane Alexander as a difficult artist to define. Her work may not lend itself to easy interpretation, but despite Alexander' s partiality for viewers forming their own personal readings, there is relative consensus that it is characterised by a frank approach to the maladjusted politics of our country.

Alexander is perhaps most recognised for the sculpture Butcher Boys (1985/6), created while doing her Masters in Fine Art at the University of Witwatersrand. The notorious trio of contemplative, animal-horned mutants that comprise the sculptural installation give tangible form to the human bestiality the artist directly associates with the violence so prevalent in South Africa.

Alexander sculpts figures such as the Butcher Boys by constructing a framework over which she builds and moulds the forms in plaster. She uses oil paint to colour their flesh and often adorns or dresses them with found objects or specially made clothes. In Racework: in the event of an earthquake we see a toy tractor and a miniature scythe placed beside the two protagonists. Elements such as these contribute to the often intertextual nature of her work. Vaguely reminiscent of the Butcher Boys, a small seated baboon with a human body fulfils the role of a faintly disturbing, but familiar mascot.

This work was produced after Alexander visited Tokyo to participate in the exhibition Africa Africa, an exhibition of contemporary art from the continent curated by Toshio Shimizu in 1998, and for which she made the Bom Boys (1998). The work comprises two adolescent boys dressed as grown men in an effort to show compliance with their corresponding Western and Eastern social norms. They invade our space with excruciating detail and physical parity, urging us to consider racial discrimination and prejudice based simply on appearance as an intrinsic element of our country' s fraught social history. Alexander explains: It was a response to the racial classification system of the Population Registration Act instituted by the apartheid government by which Japanese residents in South Africa were classified as "Other Asiatics" *. It refers to preconceived ideas about difference, exoticism, and stereotypes based on visual markers and appearance in the context of discrimination. The two boy figures are identical with a duplicated face embedded in the 'Japanese' mask. Under the Kimono, the figure wears flannel trousers. "In the event of an earthquake" refers to hotel instructions for evacuating the building. At the time of the exhibition, it was mentioned that an earthquake was expected in the Tokyo region, the only evident threat.

Sculptures such as these frequently take on a history of their own by appearing as the subjects of Alexander' s photomontages. This is certainly the case in Adventure Centre, which was inspired by, and offers a series of suspicious observations on, the gentrification of Long Street, Cape Town into an increasingly tourist and recreational area. These photomontages were created during the same period asAfrican Adventure (1999-2002), an extensive multi-media project that explored South Africa's lingering sense of global disconnectedness and dislocation. Whilst the majority of resultant works addressed the issue by presenting the country as an alternatively "open space", visualising its existence without separation and restricted movement, Adventure Centre speaks of the artist's hometown, Cape Town as still very colonial and geographically divided according to the apartheid plan. (Ziese, 2003)

Alexander (b. 1959 in Johannesburg) is a professor at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town. She is the recipient of numerous awards including the Martienssen Student Prize from the University of the Witwatersrand in 1982, the National Fine Arts Student Competition in the same year, the Standard Bank Young Artist Award in 1995, and the FNB Vita Art Now Award in 1996. In 2002 she was chosen by an international jury for the coveted DaimlerChrysler Award. Her works continue to be exhibited internationally.

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