Jane Alexander made Butcher Boys in the middle of the 1980s. What did they mean? Who are they? Jane Alexander herself has not explained – but we must imagine for ourselves.
While Alexander, then a Masters student at Wits University, was making this work in 1985, the apartheid government declared a state of emergency. This would be renewed repeatedly until 1990. What this meant was that the police were given wide-ranging powers to forcefully suppress popular protest in whatever way they wished, including the detention and interrogation of people for long periods without trial. Thirty thousand people were arrested within that short time. This created a climate of extreme fear. Most people, other than the bravest activists, dared not speak out against this tyrannical behaviour, for fear of being arrested and possibly tortured.
These three characters, the “Butcher Boys”, were created in that year. They have no mouths: they cannot speak. Yet they also have no ears; they will not hear. Their eyes are animal-like, and they are horned, like beasts. Their bodies seem powerful, and potentially cruel – yet also wounded or mutilated. Their throats and chests seem as if they had once been torn or split, their spines revealed. They have a strangely inhuman greyish skin.
This sculpture occupies real, human-scale space, so that you have to physically confront it when you see it. You meet these eyes, stand face-to-face with these figures. They are grotesque and frightening, yet sit casually – almost too normally, “humanly” – on a bench, watching and waiting: for what?
Talk About the Butcher Boys
Who are they? Victims or victimisers? Vulnerable, or vicious? Is it possible to be both? How?
What do the horns on their heads suggest, or remind you of? What reaction do you have to these? (Think about possible cultural associations: ritual and sacrifice?
What might you think of as “surreal” about this work, or these individual figures?