Arts of Africa
Butcher Boys is a work of art created by Jane Alexander in 1985-86. Jane Alexander is a caucasian female who was born in Johannesburg South Africa in 1959, and grew up in South Africa during the tumultuous political and cultural atmosphere of apartheid and the fight for civil rights. This location, or more specifically the cultural, social and political aspects of this location, affected Alexander's work, Butcher Boys. The artist states, “my work has been a response to the social environment I find myself in. Apartheid happened to be the important political condition at a certain time, and it still impacts my perception of social environments now, here or abroad”. (Dent). Alexander still resides in South Africa and currently teaches at the Michaelis School of Fine Arts in Cape Town (Bick 30). Butcher Boys is a work consisting of three plaster-cast, life-size naked figures that embody both human and inhuman characteristics. The human characteristics include arms, legs, hands, feet and torsos that are combined with monster like heads with decaying horns, dark eyes, cleaved backs, sutured chests, ear holes and lacking mouths. The genitalia of the figures appear to be covered by codpieces. The three figures are seated on a bench in a mundane position that could be seen in a "doctor's office waiting room" or similar to "athletes on the bench." (Klassmeyer). This exhibit is not separated from the audience by rails or boundaries, but is on an equal level to viewers, and therefore viewers are able to see the art piece from all angles. The artist used oil paints to create the darkness of the defects of the figures making them seem more realistic.
This artwork was created by Alexander while she was completing a masters degree at the University
of Witwatersrand. She may have chosen the media of plaster to create these figures due to the message she intended to portray. The possible message, which will be discussed in detail later, is controversial and addresses the large topic of apartheid. Perhaps the artist wanted to make a life-sized exhibit to make an impression and better communicate this important message. This exhibit is not just large but the humanoid figures are created to scale of the human form which makes the message more intimate and relatable to the general audience. Another reason why Alexander may have chosen plaster for this art piece, is that plaster is inexpensive and easily accessible. For a student, and I speak from experience, these are important considerations when choosing a medium to utilize. Therefore, plaster allowed Alexander to make the statement she intended within her constraints as a student.
In A History of Art in Africa, Suzanne Blier describes various categories that can applied to African art. Several of these categories apply to Jane Alexander's piece Butcher Boys. Alexander utilizes innovation of form by adding innovations to the human figure to communicate her message. This symbolizes the inhuman characteristics of the culture of apartheid. This technique of creating human forms with inhuman additions has a realistic and yet surreal effect on the viewer. Visual abstraction is shown in this artwork by the deviation of the figures from the classic human form. Although the figures are in a very unremarkable position, they have cleaved backs, horns, ear holes and other inhuman attributes. Without the addition of these abstract characteristics, these figures would appear to be ordinary humans, and the thought provoking connotations of the piece would be lost. The figures in the art piece are human like and represent human society. This shows humanism/ anthropomorphism. There are also three figures arranged together in this piece making this display an ensemble. The meaning of Butcher Boys is very intellectually complex, and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Therefore the piece shows a multiplicity of meaning. The various...
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Bick, Tenley. "Horror Histories: Apartheid and the Abject Body in the Work of Jane Alexander." African
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Dent, Lisa. "Global Context: Q+A with Jane Alexander." Art in America. Cynthia Zabel, 6 Aug. 2012.
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Jimenez, Dan 'etta. "Jane Alexander: Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope)." (2013): n. pag. Rpt. in
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Klassmeyer, Kelly. "Jane Alexander and the Dangers of Success." Houston Press. N.p., 19 Sept. 2012.
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Visonà, Monica Blackmun. A History of Art in Africa. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2001. Print.
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