Jane Alexander: Butcher Boys
Today the Butcher Boys (1985-86) is Alexander's best-known piece. This is partly because it is in the South African National Gallery and therefore receives a lot of public exposure. One's first experience with this work is shocking and is images stays with you long after you have left the room. These life-size and lifelike figures have a very eerie presence. At the same time the viewer is both attracted and repelled.
Three figures are seated upon a bench. Although they are very masculine, their gender is unknown because their genitalia are covered (or sealed) by the same sort of protection that cricketers wear. However, in this case they are fused into the flesh. Bone has been inserted into the flesh and the human figures take a form of both man and beast. To enhance this feature, horns grow out of the skulls. The faces are distorted: they have no mouths and can neither speak nor roar nor eat. The eyes are dark and glassy, nearly slimy. They seem hollow and haunting. As they have no ears, it shows that they have little connection to what is around them. They are naked with a very pale white skin, and one could get the feeling that they are dead.
Therefore it is clear that they have lost their senses. They show no sensitivity to the world and donít respond to any stimulation. They seem completely cut of from the world. Their seated position shows passiveness, and it is almost as if they are waiting for something. They seem nervous and aware simultaneously.
Alexander tries to capture a mixture of emotions. She does this by her extensive use of paradoxes. The theme of this work is the symbolic relationship between oppressor and victim. She seeks to identify the manner in which violence, aggression, cruelty and suffering are conveyed through the human figure. She does this by showing the violent, aggressive and powerful characteristics in the same body that reveals helplessness. Alexander has said that the alter ego of aggression is vulnerability. She continued by saying that those who are secure and unthreatened do not need to bully, but when an entire society is insecure, all its members become both aggressors and victims.
The three figures could be the mutant victims of some disaster. They have also been described as "personifications of evils deeply rooted in the history of this country." It is disturbing to see the result of ruthless execution in the three Butcher Boys. It is the lack of variety in a daily routine that directs them to monotonous butchery. After some time this can come without realisation of what you are doing.
The horns that curl down like hair can represent femininity. They can also be seen as the feminine part of the creature itself, or the way in which each identifies with all the female animals that have already been butchered. The association with death is created by the use of bones and skulls. Alexander denies rather than asserts the identity of these figures.
Although The Butcher Boys is a very confrontational work and plays on our own fears, acts of denial and fascination, it also portrays a wider sense of being as it relates directly to our whole society. Mike Wicol suggests that: "In their woundedness and their bestiality, they are personifications of the appallingly spiraling violence, the anarchy, the necklace killings, the civil war, the police brutality, the child detentions, the burning and the lootings of South Africa in the 1980s."