“This world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows, son. This world is a very mean and nasty place.”

-Rocky Balboa-

70s modernism. What goes around....

70s modernism. What goes around….

Braamfontein was once the epitome of Joburg modernity: a dense cluster of high rise offices, all in the service of the 9 to 5 working week. Abustle during the days, the streets were empty at night, save for the odd drunken student stumbling back from the Devonshire Tavern. There was the folk club where I saw Colin Shamley, circa 1975.  Above the entrance someone had posted an ironic sign saying “non blacks only.” I worked in a Braamfontein office in the early 80s, but not in a nine to five way. We were trying to get rid of the mean bastards who had put the petty apartheid signs up in the first place. In the 1990s, as the Joburg CBD went down the toilet, Braamfontein followed.

Large TO LET signs cluttered the skyline, and things were looking bad. Then they built the Mandela Bridge, and a few brave souls ventured back. I took a peek into Braamies in early December and was astonished to find a whole new world of trendiness had opened up, just like that. On a Saturday afternoon in Juta Street cool young people shopped and hung out around the street sculptures. There was a bicycle shop, several art galleries, designer clothing outlets and a camera shop.( Film, not digital.) In the Michael Stevenson gallery on the corner, Jane Alexander was exhibiting.

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In the 80s, when Jane Alexander was at Wits, I used to see her walking through Braamfontein. She wore black, was always on her own, and looked intense. It made sense then that the “Butcher Boys,”one of the most potent artworks of the 80s, had come out of that person. And so here was Jane, back in Braamfontein. There were two pieces on show. In the ironically titled “Survey: Cape of Good Hope,” you are drawn into a series of very good documentary photographs of the dreary, dangerous underbelly of the Cape. But as the images come onto the screen, you realize that among the gulls circling over rubbish dumps, Alexander has randomly inserted her own creatures. This immediately subverts the realm of the documentary photograph, as well as our expectations of what it should be. These human /animal hybrids seem to belong here, claiming their own trashed-out landscapes.

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A second room in the gallery is occupied by a work called “Infantry with Beast”: 27 marching, regimented creatures, eyes right. They have the surrealist trick of defying our habitual cognitive folders. What are they? Looking into those eyes, we meet a very archaic tradition that goes back to the primitive therianthropes of cave art. Walt Disney was a great manipulator of this imaginative vein of course, but where Walt gave us sunshine and rainbows, Alexander gives us the mean and nasty place. An Alexander sculpture sold on auction recently for a record R5. 5 million. The market got it right this time: Alexander’s work deserves to be right at the apex.

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