The sculpture “Butcher Boys” by Jane Alexander is one of the stand out pieces found within the collections at the Iziko National Gallery and is now currently on display in one of the Galleries newest exhibitions. The piece was created by Alexander when she was completing her Master’s Degree at Wits University in Johannesburg in 1988 in response to the South African “state of emergency” due to the armed struggle of the black citizens. Jane Alexander rarely speaks about her work, she believes that the work should be able to speak for itself and create an individual experience but when put on the spot she explains that her “themes are drawn from the relationship of individuals to hierarchies and the presence of aggression, violence, victimization, power and subservience.”(1) This piece in particular speaks to the human bestiality in violence, specifically in relation to the young black and coloured men who were forced to fight in the relentless fight against apartheid; metaphorically being put up for slaughter or to be butchered.
At first glance these three figures appear horrific and grotesque, but when one takes the time to really examine the piece you realize that these figures are really quite vulnerable and that there is a fear and sadness to them. The first clue to this is the animal horns. The horns she uses derive from animals that are typically hunted in South Africa. The purpose of this is to emphasize the concept and discourse between predator and prey; literally stating that these young men were being preyed upon by their government and the circumstances of their situation. The physical appearance of these statues also speaks to the vulnerability of these characters, specifically the muffling of their ears and mouths as well as the absence of their eyes. This along with their exposed spines and lack of clothing expresses their inability to adequately educate and defend themselves against the predatory forces they are helplessly forced to go up against. This sculpture is emotionally moving and creates the stage for necessary conversation and introversion. I also believe it is extremely successful in portraying how gruesome and terrifying these times had been.