To call Jane Alexander’s “Yield”, a montage of her sculptures from 1997-2000, is to reduce the power of her work. The sculptures, arranged in one of the inner rooms of Michael Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town (South Africa), include 1000 machetes, 1000 sickles, red industrial strength rubber gloves (the kind worn by people working with corrosive matter), and high-explosive anti-tank ammunition boxes from the Angola-South African war, and fifteen humanoid figures – two, three, four feet tall, some bearing perfectly formed hands, individually sculpted toes, and male (human) genitalia.

The heads of the sculptures tell a different story: hyena, monkey/ape, scavenging bird, dog, lamb, and black beaks of sacred ibis. A tall figure in the back seems to be conducting the pack forward, the unwieldy arms lengthened in a directive pose. An armless scavenging bird and a small dog-figure scurry in a pile of debris in the back; a group of sacred ibises gather around another scavenging bird-figure – in discussion. An ape-faced figure leads a hobbled four-legged “ruminant” forward. In the foreground, a lamb-man “with stolen boots”, wearing a white butcher coat stands still: his person is hung with rusted sickles, and the complete skin of a rooikat dangles over the front of his body, attached to the coat by its head – it almost looks as though the rooikat’s mouth has bitten into the top button of the butcher coat. Above, a small chandelier–its opulence bizarre and out-of-place–illuminates the room.

The floor is strewn with “Bushmanland earth”, evocative of the red, iron-ore rich soil of my Zambian childhood: touch it, and the grain of it – the stain of it – evokes not only pleasurable nostalgia, but something more: that soil, named as it is in the catalogue guiding us through the exhibit, links the violence that made certain life possible through removing the livelihoods of others. Cut into the green of the rainy season, and the hillside will bleed iron red.

Two of the humanoid figures in this installation wear industrial-strength miner-boots (no Kate-Moss-at-muddy-music-festival Wellingtons, these), while two others wear tiny, child-sized black shoes – the lace-up kind that I remember schoolboys wearing.

Those home-made, no-Forex shoes, worn by those who cannot dream of the luxury of imported ones, had to be wiped of daily dust, and polished on a Sunday night to maintain the dignity and cleanliness of one’s mother and father.

The neatness of the lace bow on the seated figure’s shoes – observing this great exodus from the child-sized school chair at the front of the room – better conveys the reflective quality etched on the face than any elaborate explanation on a caption. She/he is there, a witness – an observer that experiences – witness to the event, and a witness on a stand after the atrocity, there for public consumption: shoelaces neatly tied up. The slumping shoulders, the gaze – helpless, hopeful, unspeaking – is unfocused, and yet, also looks towards a white Jesus figure, who poses eternally atop the munitions box: arms outstretched, crucified. This Jesus, replete with a crown of thorns, has no hands – lifeless industrial strength gloves substitute at the end of useless broomstick arms. Though he has come to save, to atone for sins, his hands are red-rubber clean. How can our little booted figure come clean to this white Christ?

A uniformed man is seated outside the room. I ask him, what is it like, to watch people as they come into this experience? What is it like, to see this room every day? He says, “This is real art…not just like a picture on a wall. This one, it can speak to you.” I realise that this man is “part” of the installation – the “security guard” portion, as mentioned on the catalogue. Joost Bosland of Michael Stevenson Gallery tells me, later, that people don’t realise that he is “installed”, as it were – that people do not interact with him, except when he tells them that they can actually go in to the room, step on the red gloves covering the floor, walk between the sculptures.

The “Security guard” and I speak about the people who’ve visited the gallery, and what they do, when they walk this room. He has that unmistakable accent of those from up north (from South Africa)– and I ask him that question that I, myself, hate being asked: “Where are you from?”, though really, I know. And he hesitates … as do those who asked that question endlessly, as do those who encounter trouble for being where they are from. But he tells me…because he is in that position – that subordinate position – in which one is expected to be open for inspection, to be vulnerable to inquiring eyes. That I am his neighbour from another dilapidated state changes his responses – a little. But we are hardly equals here, and there’s no way out of that understanding. We speak of the rivers we grew up next to – but not of the vast river between our differently-abled, separate journeys out.

A CCTV camera and monitor-screen, with a grey humanoid figure seated atop, reflects and records all that happens in the room – including the discomfort of this conversation.

There’s hardly a modern atrocity – the macheted lives, the great displacements, the scavenging hopefuls, the guilt-filled displays of aftermath trials, and yes, even these lopsided conversations with those who were the subject of the 9PM News – that happens without a camera present. And here we were, bearing witness to the aftermath, and to the present. Then going out to the blue-skied sunshine of a Cape Town winter’s day, World Cup vuvuzelas blaring. This rusting soil here is mixed in with the corroding iron of the sickles and the machetes, it rubs itself on the gloves, it dusts our shoes – following us to the Saturday afternoon Neighbourhood Market down the street, where the artisanal bread is R40 a loaf, and pea-and-potato rooti (a far-cry from your auntie’s) costs R15.

Neelika Jayawardane

Further Reading