The Butcher Boys
On a small wooden bench, in a quiet room of the Cape Town art gallery, sit three statues better suited to the dark catacombs of a Stephen King novel. Jane Alexander’s Butcher Boys are the most frightening pieces of art I have ever seen. The three sit innocently on a bench amongst fine English portraits lining the walls, their pitch-black, glassy eyes staring sightlessly back at the many accusing faces. With their mouths sealed, the life-like, powdery-coloured forms sit motionless, while you convince yourself that their animal-horn-topped heads are not about to turn and stare you in the face.
Through careful analysis and deduction of the various components that make up this remarkable text, this essay hopes to unravel the reasons behind the impressions and feelings brought about when it is viewed. The way in which the artist positioned her works, the room wherein they are situated, the texture of their “flesh” and the symbols they represent all have a role to play in the impression they create. One theory about The Works is that they represent the mindset the Apartheid period.
With these figures having been constructed during the Apartheid era in South Africa, by a South African artist, one can see how references to the ways of thinking of that time would be plentiful. Let us look at the statues in the context that they appear in the gallery. They are positioned just to the left of the main entrance, in full view of anyone who walks through the doors. Taking the Apartheid idea into account, it seems as though they are the “watchers” of the gallery, just as the forces in Apartheid, were the “watchers” of South Africa.
Within the room they occupy, they are completely out of place. The walls are covered with the Victorian style portraits of John Singer-Sergeant and John Harper (the artists, not the subjects) amongst others. These are the kind of paintings one would expect to find in old art galleries in England. The paintings are of old, obviously important, English nobles, gazing down in distaste at the vile subjects invading their room. It gives the impression that The Butcher Boys are being condemned and the walls around them are filled with the faces of the jury.
They are being sentenced or judged in much the same way as Apartheid South Africa was sentenced or judged. The feeling of accusation and condemnation is achieved by the seemingly hundreds of eyes, all staring into the unseeing eyes of the Statues. The positioning and arrangement of the work has an obvious affect on the way people view and interpret the texts. A good reading of this text produces, amongst others, the question of: “Why three? Why are they positioned as a trio, and not as a duo or as a foursome? ” The number three has numerous connotations and references throughout history.
There were three prime evils: Terror, Destruction and Hatred. This point becomes very interesting if you take into account some of the masterminds of Apartheid. They may be a warped adaptation of the nursery rhyme; “Three Blind Mice”. As the story goes, the mice lose their tails to the farmer’s wife and in an unfortunate twist of fate become tail-less as well as blind. Similarly, the statues have lost their speech (their mouths are sealed), their ears (they have none) and their sight and so could be interpreted as “The Three Disfigured Men”.
One may wonder what it is they had cut off, considering their lack of genitalia. Another impression is that they may be a contrast to The Three Monkeys 2 (See no evil; Hear no evil; Speak no evil). The Figures are in fact deformed versions of the monkeys. While they use their hands to cover their relevant senses, The Statues are mutilated and have had each sense removed from them. This puts them in a position of helplessness, which is contrasted by the positions of autocratic dominance that the Apartheid leaders, which they symbolize, held.
While the Monkeys protect themselves from evil, it is ironic that The Butcher Boys embody evil and therefore have no need hide their senses. There is almost a reversal of values that presents itself here. As opposed to protecting themselves from evil, The Butcher Boys are protecting themselves from good. The faces around them, representing the rest of the world, are ignored because they are not seen, heard or talked of. This falls nicely into place with the stance taken by the police to suppress any talk of uprising or revolt within the populace.
The feeling or mood given off by the work would be remarkably different if they were made as standing figures and not sitting ones. Their air of quiet rebelliousness would be changed to one of open defiance. If they were standing the almost indifferent look on their faces would be interpreted completely differently, as one of noncompliance and self-assurance. With them positioned as standing and being a life-size (my own estimation) 6ft 2″ tall, they would be an imposing, dominating force within the room.
They would change from being the accused to being the judges, completely turning around the interpretation that they represent the “bad guys” of Apartheid. The symbols represented within The Butcher Boys text are numerous. They have no eyes, no ears and no mouths. This symbolizes the way in which the controlling forces in Apartheid chose not to listen to, hear or see what was going on in their country nor would they engage in any communication contrary to their doctrine and governmental policy, matching the immovable nature of the statues.
Horrific human-rights crimes were committed and, like these demons, they just sat and stared at their accusers in defiance. These figures are now permanently punished for the wrongs that they represent. Horns are the traditional symbol of evil. In the horror genre, the way to portray a character as a demon or as purely evil is to give that character horns i. e. The Devil will have horns. The fact that they were horns that once belonged to animals, gives a markedly life-like impression to The Butcher Boys. One can visualize the proverbial Mad Scientist walking around looking for body parts to add to his “master pieces”.
From a Christian point of view The Three could distortedly symbolize the three forms of the holy deity i. e. The Father The Son and The Holy Spirit. When related to the concepts of demon horns and The Devil, we are aware of a deep feeling of uneasiness, as our morals and our sense of right and wrong are polluted, as they were in the pre1990 years. The colours and markings on The Statues closely resemble those of cadavers. The exposed spines along the backs of The Statues accentuate the post-mortem look, as do the cut-lines along their breastbones.
It is easily imagined that these creatures were in the process of coronary examination, when they were stolen, cast and put on display. The torn open look makes it seem as though the apathy of Apartheid has been frozen and sculpted into a suitable “human” form. This gives a very real feeling to The Piece. Through her definite choices in texture, positioning, context, intertextual referencing, etc. Jane Alexander has succeeded in giving The Butcher Boys a distinct intended meaning. Altering of a single element would result in the changing of the entire meaning.
All these elements: texture, arrangement, symbolism, context, etc. have an ability to shape and modify our readings of the text. Changes to any one of these produces a completely different interpretation of the same text. In this way we can create a multitude of different texts using the same source, a form of Polytext, if you will. This ability to view texts in different ways (so creating these “polytexts”) is essential to the modern progression of person-kind, without which we would have a world that is very primitive and uninteresting.