The Butcher Boys by Jane Alexander
On a small wooden bench, in a quiet room of the Cape Town art gallery,
sit three statues better suited to the dark catacombs of a Stephen
King novel. Jane Alexander's Butcher Boys are the most frightening
pieces of art I have ever seen. The three sit innocently on a bench
amongst fine English portraits lining the walls, their pitch-black,
glassy eyes staring sightlessly back at the many accusing faces. With
their mouths sealed, the life-like, powdery-coloured forms sit
motionless, while you convince yourself that their animal-horn-topped
heads are not about to turn and stare you in the face.
Through careful analysis and deduction of the various components that
make up this remarkable text, this essay hopes to unravel the reasons
behind the impressions and feelings brought about when it is viewed.
The way in which the artist positioned her works, the room wherein
they are situated, the texture of their "flesh" and the symbols they
represent all have a role to play in the impression they create.
One theory about The Works is that they represent the mindset the
Apartheid period.1 With these figures having been constructed during
the Apartheid era in South Africa, by a South African artist, one can
see how references to the ways of thinking of that time would be
1. Online News Hour, 13th march 2003
Let us look at the statues in the context that they appear in the
gallery. They are positioned just to the left of the main entrance, in
full view of anyone who walks through the doors. Taking the Apartheid
idea into account, it seems as though they are the "watchers" of the
gallery, just as the forces in Apartheid, were the "watchers" of South
Within the room they occupy, they are completely out of place. The
walls are covered with the Victorian style portraits of John
Singer-Sergeant and John Harper (the artists, not the subjects)
amongst others. These are the kind of paintings one would expect to
find in old art galleries in England. The paintings are of old,
obviously important, English nobles, gazing down in distaste at the
vile subjects invading their room. It gives the impression that The
Butcher Boys are being condemned and the walls around them are filled
with the faces of the jury. They are being sentenced or judged in much
the same way as Apartheid South Africa was sentenced or judged. The
feeling of accusation and condemnation is achieved by the seemingly
hundreds of eyes, all staring into the unseeing eyes of the Statues.
The positioning and arrangement of the work has an obvious affect on
the way people view and interpret the texts.
A good reading of this text produces, amongst others, the question of:
"Why three? Why are they positioned as a trio, and not as a duo or as
a foursome?" The number...