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Pocket Money to Millions: A student's keen eye for art admirably rewarded
Untitled, a burly figure seated in a wooden armchair, is strong and intimidating.

JOHANNESBURG.- A seminal work, Untitled 1985/6, by the eminent South African sculptor, Jane Alexander, will be sold by Strauss & Co at an auction in Johannesburg on 11 November 2013 and is expected to fetch over R2million.

Undoubtedly one of the most influential South African sculptors of the 20th/21st Century, Jane Alexander produced Untitled concurrently with her seminal work, Butcher Boys, first exhibited together as part of her WITS master’s show at the Market Gallery in Johannesburg in 1986. In the original installation, Alexander positioned the Butcher Boys upon a bench in a relationship to the Untitled figure, facing them, gazing in the opposite direction, presumably regarding them. Completed in 1986, the year in which South Africa was in its second consecutive state of emergency, one senses the context of their creation beset with violence. There is a feeling in these works of the political and social character of 1980s South Africa.

Untitled, a burly figure seated in a wooden armchair, is strong and intimidating. His cadaveric flesh is daubed with discolorations. At the rear, his skin is severed to expose the brain and spinal column. Draped over his neck is a leather and rubber strap – originally used in the Witwatersrand mines to secure a body to a stretcher to hoist from a shaft. Deprived of a mouth, the figure can merely bear witness to the events in his view, unable to comment, protest, or condone. His eyes do not return one’s gaze but seem to drift off in view of something further, beyond his immediate reach. The imposing form is made all the more disturbing by the fact that it is life sized and rendered in scabrous realism, as though he may at any moment stand up out of his chair. Describing the Butcher Boys, though equally pertinent to Untitled, Emma Bedford, writing at the time as curator for the South African National Gallery elaborates these figures: “In form and content they express the artist’s awareness that the atrocities which humans commit are inscribed on their bodies.”

Notoriously reluctant to interview or discuss the theoretical undercurrents in her work, Alexander commented at the time of her master’s exhibition: “My themes are drawn from the relationships of individuals to hierarchies and the presence of aggression, violence, victimisation, power and subservience…”

Enduringly averse to engage directly with the art market, a characteristic distinctly contrasting to her British and American contemporaries (consider the blatant efforts made in this regard by famous yBAs et al.), Alexander, who has never had formal gallery representation, seems to prefer the setting of less commercial and more austere platforms – kunsthalles, museums, cathedrals etc.

Untitled was purchased after Alexander’s master’s exhibition by the current owner, then a WITS undergraduate student who could only afford to pay off the work in instalments from a sole income of pocket money. It took a year of instalments to complete payment. For a long time the only work sold from Alexander’s graduation show was a small bird sculpture entitled Goose. Untitled was purchased soon thereafter, while the Butcher Boys remained in Storage at the artist’s parent’s house, narrowly avoiding the threat of destruction, until they were acquired by the South African National Gallery in 1991. So central have these sculptures since become in the psyches of subsequent generations of South Africans that the constant demand to see them necessitates their being on permanent display in the South African National Gallery. They are probably also South Africa’s greatest visual art ambassadors having been included in many major international exhibitions such as Identita e Alterita at the Venice Biennale in 1995; The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945–1994, curated by Okwui Enwezor for Museum Villa Stuck, Munich, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and P.S.1 and the Museum of Modern Art, New York from 2001–2002.

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