Monday, October 26, 2015

The Butcher Boys

Here's an idea of what I've been studying this year. This is one of the questions from my Visual Literacy module at varsity. (Also, my lecturer for some bizarre reason did NOT like me comparing these chaps to Frankenstein's monster, but I'll stand by my opinion on the matter.)

Picture: Wiki Commons
Upon first sight, the ominous figures of Jane Alexander’s The Butcher Boys (c. 1985/86. Mixed media, size unknown. Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town) strikes casual viewers with the vision of diabolical monsters lurking upon an ordinary wooden bench; however a closer view of the trio suggests that these so-called perpetrators of apartheid may also be considered victims of the very system they are proposed to uphold.

Alexander’s The Butcher Boys presents viewers with an undeniable, arresting focal point, especially considering where they have been placed in the Iziko Museums National Gallery – on their bench prominently positioned in the entrance hall, which makes them one of the first works that confronts visitors. A close examination of the sculpture reveals the figures’ lifelike poses and great attention to realism that has imbued the figures with physical menace. They are life sized and present an ominous blend of human and animal that immediately draws the eye and elicits a visceral response, much in the same way that bystanders feel compelled to stare at the scene of an accident. As passive bystanders, viewers are placed in a situation where they are confronted by a work that elicits a range of responses that are open to interpretation.

If anything, a viewer’s possible initial response of revulsion and macabre fascination, may lead to the sense that these entities pose a very real threat thanks to their powerful, well-defined musculature and positioning that give semblance to the potential of sudden movement made frightening by the unholy addition of horns. Their eyes, too, set them apart – dark and liquid, like that of an animal, possibly unthinking, fearful and feral. Their sickly, clay-like complexion suggests a skin tone that is neither black nor white, but is neutral and possibly diseased, even. Darker blemishes on their necks and by their damaged spines are suggestive of weeping wounds that have not healed. The figures represent an anomaly – constructs that should not be, like Frankenstein’s monster, composite beings made up of the discarded parts of others. Through a process of dehumanisation, these once well-proportioned human individuals have become perverted effigies; their physical bodies have been twisted into a parody of mankind by their taking on of bestial qualities. This is summed up by John Peffer, who writes, “Through the graphic distortion of the body and its metamorphosis into a beast, artists posed trenchant questions about the relation of corporeal experience to ideas about animality, community, and the sacred.” (Peffer 2009, p. 71) Alexander’s The Butcher Boys, through the addition of animal horns, bestial eyes, removal of ears, emasculation of the genitalia, and muting of the mouths, in addition to mutilation of the spine and throat, are a discomforting blend of human and animal that cannot simply be ignored. The choice of incorporating animal horns into the sculpture not only suggests the bestial metamorphosis akin to the Minotaur in its ancient Cretan Labyrinth – the product of a transgression against nature and the gods – but considered in a largely Western (and Christian) context, is also suggestive of the diabolical.

Context is important when viewing The Butcher Boys, especially considering the circumstances in which it was initially released. As Peffer writes, “During 1985 a state of emergency was declared in South Africa in response to renewed outbreaks of violent resistance, and was renewed yearly until 1990. The police were again given wide-ranging powers for the forceful suppression of popular protest, including the detention and interrogation of suspects without trial. Over thirty thousand people were detained between 1986 and 1987. During this period, Jane Alexander produced a sculptural group, The Butcher Boys (1985-86).” (Peffer 2009, p. 75) This climate of fear meant that South Africans could not be outspoken about or stand against conditions within the country. The Boys are mute – Alexander has created them without functioning mouths; it was not possible for South Africans to speak out against the oppressive government at the time, without fear of reprisal. With their ears removed, The Butcher Boys are incapable of hearing, suggesting that they’d be unable to hear pleas for mercy. The fact that their throats have been tampered with indicates that their vocal chords may be affected, on top of them not having functioning mouths. Exposed, damaged spines may also suggest a “spinelessness” or cowardice – further indication of either an inability or incapacity to resist, to act. Much can be read into the choice of their poses as well. The figure on the left seems relaxed, indifferent almost, as if he is waiting, resigned to his state of being. The figure in the middle, and the one on the far right, both give the appearance of paying attention to events the one on the far left hasn’t noticed (or won’t) yet. The Boy in the centre is alert, watchful, yet it is the one on the far right that suggests that he is about to move. Whether this reaction will result in a fight-or-flight response, is not made explicit, and it can be suggested that this conclusion can be left to the discretion of the viewer. The figures’ realism adds to the suggestion that each Boy is poised on the cusp of movement.

Friedrich Nietzsche's aphorism 146, from Beyond Good and Evil, resonates strongly a possible conception of Jane Alexander's The Butcher Boys: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into the abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” (Nietzsche 1990, p. 102) The process of creating a monster goes two ways; through becoming the perpetrator of a broken, repressive system, of people who are shaped into tools for a greater evil, whose worldview is narrowed to the point where the “truth” that they are fed is limited (as illustrated by the Boys’ limited senses) the Boys themselves are victims, damaged and lashing out in much the same way as the Greek Minotaur or Frankenstein’s monster – unable to feel empathy and enslaved to their bestial natures that are enforced on them by authority figures.

Primarily, the Boys evoke horror. As Bick states, “Alexander’s work activates the space of viewership with the psychic and visceral experience of horror that continues to haunt us as we turn away, but more importantly, her work is itself haunted by experiences of untold, traumatic, and often irretrievable histories, which on the one hand seem outside the ethics and even capacity of representation … and on the other, without reflective and critical attention, are in danger of becoming lost to the past.” (Bick 2010, p. 32) We confront the Boys in a public space, in a gallery, where they lurk as a visible reminder of our inconvenient, unspoken past. Now, thirty years after their creation, they “confront the public secret of apartheid head on, not only by ‘giving evidence’ which could not be admitted in public or by the (white) public to itself. (Peffer 2009, p. 77) The Butcher Boys offers viewers a solid reminder, one that is presented, and based on the perception of the manner in which they are seated, of an unhurried watchfulness; their physicality suggests that they’re not just going to go away; they’re here, waiting, immovable, implacable. They evoke a primal reaction, of fear, very human yet reduced to instinctual responses. They have come into being through the action of a repressive system, to induce terror at a primal level, not only to be scorned but to be viewed with pity, for having been damaged so that they are no longer equipped to function within society nor adapt to changing circumstances.

Cognisance must also be taken of how socio-cultural context changes through the passage of time. Over the years, the possible meanings and interpretations of The Butcher Boys may shift thanks to the cultural biases of viewers; those who were born after 1994 may perhaps not draw upon the same sense of outrage as those who were present during the 1980s, when apartheid’s stranglehold experienced its last, reflexive gasps. There are those who are adult now, for whom the realities of detention without trial and enforced national service are relegated to a few lines in reference books. We are no longer faced with a visceral sucker punch of the intense horror, and though The Butcher Boys are mute, they linger as sentinels to this past – lest we forget.

As to whether The Butcher Boys were either victims or perpetrators of the apartheid system this question cannot, therefore, be considered as an either/or kind of situation. The Butcher Boys are both. As individuals they have been stunted by the system that has used them as enforcers of violence. Therein, ultimately, lies the tragedy, that through their dehumanisation they have been turned into the very monster that one should fear. Their contorted, physical forms are a reflection of the underlying social trauma that South Africans have faced under the yoke of an oppressive regime. The Butcher Boys are a reminder of the bestial actions perpetrated against thousands of South Africans, that have turned the perpetrators into monsters; yet at the same time we cannot forget that these so-called monsters were once human too, twisted into objects to fear and pity as a result of their actions.


Bick, T. 2010. Horror histories: apartheid and the abject body in the work of Jane Alexander. African Arts. Winter: 30-41.

Nietzsche. F. 1990. Beyond Good and Evil. Penguin Group: London. Page 102

Peffer, J. C2009. Art and the end of apartheid. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (Chapter 2: Becoming Animal. Pages 41-72).


  1. This helped me with my art class :) thank you xx

  2. This is very well put, I feel that the Frankenstein reference makes so much sense when paired with the 'Boys' especially in the second instance where you mention the Minotaur as well.
    But nothing is more fitting than Nietzsche's quote.
    I live in South Africa, currently studying Art History and having seen the Butcher Boys up close it has long been one of my favourite works by a South African artist. Thank you for the breath-of-fresh-air-insights. Keep it up.