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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Jane Alexander on being human

Image: Bom boys (detail). 1998. Photo by Roger Woolridge. © Jane Alexander.

Galilee Chapel, Durham Cathedral 

3 March - 22 March 2009


In partnership with Durham Cathedral and by kind permission of the Chapter of Durham, Durham University's Institute of Advanced Study hosted a unique art exhibition as part of its 2008/09 research theme on what it is to be human in the 21st Century.

The exhibition was a select collection of the work of internationally acclaimed South African artist, Jane Alexander; whose challenging sculptures invite us to reflect on the immensely rich and yet often fraught potentialities of humanness.

The central component of the exhibition was the ‘Bom Boys', a tableau inspired in the everyday life of displaced children in Cape Town, where the artist lives. Complex, multifaceted and intriguing, the tableau can be understood as suggesting not only the vulnerability of abandoned children, and their risks of falling into a subhuman condition, but also their resilience and their struggle to build a dignified and respected life. The exhibition also included, in a site specific arrangement, a series of individual figures that, combined with the ‘Bom Boys', alert us to the fragility of our social, cultural and moral constructs.

Although Alexander's work is rooted in and can be perceived as a comment on the tragic experience of the Apartheid era in South Africa, and its legacy, it widely transcends its locality and offers a poignant reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of the human spirit.

We hope that by installing the exhibition in the Cathedral there can be a fruitful encounter between Alexander's depiction of the human condition and the Christian tradition with its insights about the possibility of renewal and hope for humanity.

The Very Revd Michael Sadgrove, Dean of Durham