A brutal past haunts the present

A work by South African sculptor Jane Alexander sold this week for R5.5-million – the highest price yet paid for a South African sculpture. Cannily titled Untitled, the work is clearly related to Alexander’s famous The Butcher Boys, now in the South African National Gallery: that set of seated figures comes from the 1980s, a time when South Africa’s present was most disturbed and its future looked most uncertain.

They are brooding, mutant creatures, evocative of the despair that so often marked those dark times. They made one think of tortured bodies as well as those who might be capable of such torture, yet they themselves seemed numb as well as dumb. The Butcher Boys was an immensely powerful work in its time because it spoke hauntingly of that era, so it’s weird that one of their fellows, our friend Untitled, should pop up in 2013 to grab headlines and glossy picture space – today, when we are nearing the 20th anniversary of the birth of democracy in this country. Today, when we should be celebrating the dark days put behind us, after a long and painful struggle, and be well into a working development programme for South Africa, one that helps to end the inequalities of the past.

We should not be wondering, today, about which butcher boys are looting state funds or murdering political opponents. We should not be seeing an echo of that sculpture’s twisted bodies in the corpses of children, or even in the charred remains of township gangsters who fall to mob justice.

Perhaps it’s a reminder that great art is relevant to its own time but can transcend it and take on new meanings as time goes by, or that it alludes to something deeper in the human spirit than is symptomatic of one era. Either way, we salute Untitled.

We also salute Nadine Gordimer, whose 90th birthday we celebrate in this week’s Mail & Guardian‘s book section, and who was writing some of her most powerful work around the same time that Alexander was making her first sculptures. Readers will remember that, as epigraph to her 1981 novel July’s People, Gordimer used a quote from the Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci that feels all too horribly relevant today: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.”

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