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Kristin Bell
ARH 426: African Art History
Research Paper
Professor Nicolette Trahoulia
Spring 2015

Postmodern Still Masquerades & the Uncanny: The Work of Jane Alexander
Reimagined Within Traditional African Art Forms

The disturbing and intriguing work of Jane Alexander has often been cited as an

oeuvre that is at once beyond words and simultaneously succinctly described as

postcolonial grotesque.1 Her work has been dissected within the traditions of Western

philosophy and art history, yet there has been little discussion of her work as a

continuation of African traditions despite the fact that she is South African (albeit a white

South African woman). In this paper I will discuss ways in which Jane Alexanders work

relates to traditional African art, specifically how it relates to African masquerades and

masking traditions and the second-burial effigies of the Yoruba. I hope to show that the

Figure 1: Harbinger and Dogon Mask Dance

1
Kobena Mercer, Postcolonial Grotesque: Jane Alexanders Poetic Monsters, Nka
Journal of Contemporary African Art 2013, no. 33 (September 1, 2013): 80.
2

very thing that makes Alexanders work beyond words is the same thing that activates

and infuses traditional African art expressions with their power.

First, I think it is important to show visual similarities between Alexanders work

and the masquerades. My first image (Figure 1) is a side-by-side comparison of

Alexanders oft-used character Harbinger in the work Harbinger in correctional

uniform, lost marsh from 20072 juxtaposed with a video still from a video titled Dogon

Mask Dance.3 I found the use of walking sticks and horned masks to be quite strikingly

similar. Perhaps the similarities are an accident, but even so, it reveals that on some level

Alexander has been influenced by African imagery. As irruptions that subvert the

entirety and wholeness of our structured daytime universes, these objects in Alexanders

installments bring sinister portents from the realm of night, acting as Trojan horses that

cross the repression barrier to unload contents unpalatable to the conscious mind.4 Both

figures are also larger than life with attenuated and extended forms. Harbinger, even

though it is a still image, represents movement with the out-of-focus monkey figure in the

bottom left, and the bird figures in the air. The Dogon dance in situ is all about movement

and animation. It is as if Alexander has encapsulated the spirit of the Dogon dance into a

postmodern still masquerade.

Even though Alexanders main character is a hybrid inanimate human, and the

dancer is a regular living human, when it comes to masquerades, African tradition

encourages us to leave the realm of the ordinary and banal behind. When speaking of

2
Jimenez, Danetta, Jane Alexander (Surveys from the Cape of Good Hope): An
Educators Guide (New York: Museum for African Art, 2013), 2829,
http://www.theafricacenter.org/uploads/resources/docs/jane_alexander_educators_guide.p
df.
3
AshBasel, Dogon Mask Dance, 2010, https://youtu.be/J60WVxAOe9Y.
4
Pep Subirs et al., eds., Jane Alexander: Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope) (New
York, NY: Museum for African Art [u.a.], 2011), 39.
3

masquerades Vison et. al. write, the maskerthe human wearing a mask and its

associated costumeis a transformed being: not a person imitating a spirit, but a person

whose identity is subsumed into the otherworld being who is now truly present.5 This is

a perfectly acceptable understanding of Alexanders characters as well. Although

Alexanders creatures are not animate, they are otherworldy and uncanny. Alexander

strategically employs [her] aestheticto point to the precarious position between

fantasy and reality.6

Figure 2: The Municipal Crucifix (1986) and Second-Burial Effigy Figure of Chief (1949)

5
Monica Blackmun Vison, A History of Art in Africa, 2nd ed (Upper Saddle River, N.J:
Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008), 324.
6
Bick, Tenley, Horror Histories: Apartheid and the Abject Body in the Work of Jane
Alexander, African Arts 2010, no. Winter (2010): 38.
4

The sculptures also suggest the uncanny (unheimlich) at work. Freud describes

the uncanny as that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well

known and had long been familiar.7 There are precedents of the uncanny in traditional

African art. Examples include the second-burial figures of the Yoruba. In figure two I

have juxtaposed Alexanders sculpture The Municipal Crucifix (1986)8 with a second-

burial effigy figure of a chief from a Yoruban village near w from 1949.9 Both figures

are alive and dead at the same time. Of course, they are not animate, but their position

within their cultures keeps them from being one or the other. Lawal writes that the

mnemonic power of a life-size naturalistic effigy (k) vivifies the presence of the dead

during the second-burial ceremony, enabling mourners to treat the image as if it were

alive.10 Part of the uncanny nature of Alexanders figures is their strange ability to seem

somewhat life-like just like the effigy figures. Another sculpture, Alexanders famous

Butcher Boys (Figure 3), reinforces this ambiguity of the life/death barrier. The Butcher

Boys irrupting spines and bones transgress the distinction between life and death, inside

and outside, by undermining the skin as a sign of the wholeness of the surface and the

completion and innocence of the unified body. In addition to their forms being similar, it

can be argued that Alexanders figures and the Yoruba second-burial effigy figures

function in a similar way too. In a sense, Alexanders figures help us to mourn the

horrific histories of South African apartheid (and inhumanity in general) while the effigy

figures aid in the mourning of individuals. As active agents of transformation and

7
Subirs et al., Jane Alexander, 38.
8
Bick, Tenley, Horror Histories: Apartheid and the Abject Body in the Work of Jane
Alexander, 35.
9
Babatunde Lawal, Aworan: Representing the Self and Its Metaphysical Other in
Yoruba Art, The Art Bulletin 83, no. 3 (September 2001): 504.
10
Ibid., 503504.
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meditation, [they]help effect many kinds of change.11

Figure 3: Butcher Boys (1985-1986)

Alexanders work, by appealing to a world outside of reality, invites us to accept

change on unconscious levels. As images and dances, the traditional African art that has

been discussed also works on the preconscious semiotican anarchic and formless flux

that both precedes and exceeds symbolization[it] corresponds to the unrepresentable

aspects of the unconscious.12 In writing about traditional African masquerades, the

authors of A History of Art in Africa might as well have been talking about Alexanders

work. They write, it is appropriate to speak of masking [and Alexanders work] as an

embodied paradox. The [art]is symbolic and allusive, but tangible. It is an illusion,

but at the same time real. The characters are invented, yet are quite capable of inflicting

11
Vison, A History of Art in Africa, 324.
12
Subirs et al., Jane Alexander, 42.
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damageit is affective as well as effective, and one of the continents most expressive

and content-rich art forms.13

When examining Alexanders work through the lens of traditional African art, it

is hard to imagine that a connection does not exist. Her use of masking continues in other

works like Bom Boys (1998)14 (Figure 4) where we are again confronted with the

otherworldly, only this time in the guise of street children. They awaken in us the same

uncanny feeling of familiarity and eerie strangeness[with their] same blue-gray

corpselike color, the same passivity, the same somewhat-chubby prepubescent

stockiness.15 The boys are mid-motion, again captured in a postmodern still masquerade

that exists on the border of life and death; real and unreal. Despite being configured

without the traditional African religious culture that inspires Dogon and Yoruba art,

Alexanders work embodies the aesthetic and functional spaces in ways that connect her

Figure 4: Bom Boys (1998)

13
Vison, A History of Art in Africa, 324.
14
Jimenez, Danetta, Jane Alexander: Educators Guide, 24.
15
Subirs et al., Jane Alexander, 41.
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art to traditional expressions of African art. This connection makes Alexanders work all

the more powerful and appropriate as a commentary on social injustice, and reinforces

the importance that these traditional African art forms have as precedence. The

connection is important as well, because it offers up a dialectic that is fascinating and

ruptures traditional barriers of discourse.


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Bibliography

AshBasel. Dogon Mask Dance, 2010. https://youtu.be/J60WVxAOe9Y.


Bick, Tenley. Horror Histories: Apartheid and the Abject Body in the Work of Jane
Alexander. African Arts 2010, no. Winter (2010): 3041.
Jimenez, Danetta. Jane Alexander (Surveys from the Cape of Good Hope): An
Educators Guide. New York: Museum for African Art, 2013.
http://www.theafricacenter.org/uploads/resources/docs/jane_alexander_educators
_guide.pdf.
Lawal, Babatunde. Aworan: Representing the Self and Its Metaphysical Other in Yoruba
Art. The Art Bulletin 83, no. 3 (September 2001): 498526.
Mercer, Kobena. Postcolonial Grotesque: Jane Alexanders Poetic Monsters. Nka
Journal of Contemporary African Art 2013, no. 33 (September 1, 2013): 8091.
Subirs, Pep, Jane Alexander, Museum for African Art, SCAD Museum of Art, and
Contemporary Arts Museum, eds. Jane Alexander: Surveys (from the Cape of
Good Hope). New York, NY: Museum for African Art [u.a.], 2011.
Vison, Monica Blackmun. A History of Art in Africa. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J:
Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008.

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