The ultra-modern design of the new art museum at SCAD was reason enough to make a trip to Savannah over the weekend. I had no idea that there was an exhibit by the renowned South African sculptor Jane Alexander; it was just a happy accident. I haven’t been as unmoved by a museum exhibit since stumbling onto a Thornton Dial retrospective in Indiana last year. I say unmoved, because in both cases I simply stood there, transfixed. With Dial, I instantly recognized a witness to the South’s despair and disparities. When I saw Alexander’s creepy, life-sized “humanimals” my feet felt cemented, weighed down by a deep connection and unease I still don’t really understand.
I suppose in the case of her “Surveys from the Cape of Good Hope” the connection is the childhood I spent in South Africa. Like Alexander, I grew up a treasured white girl in a country that still embraced Apartheid. Unlike her, I have never found a way to express the myriad of ways that system both shaped and shamed me.
Although Alexander is famously reticent about the “meaning” of her work, I sense this exhibit is her way. There are no pamphlets full of art-speak. The walls have no explanatory paragraphs. Even the titles of the pieces are enigmatic; I didn’t know what “Bom Boys” meant until I scoured the internet. Gary loves this kind of freedom to interpret art (he can’t stand even naming his photographs for exhibitions) but I need context. So for me the eager student docents positioned like ambassadors at every turn were actually useful. The young man who kindly noticed my inability to just move along had clearly gone through something similar himself. His role, his relief perhaps, was to share everything he had learned about the stories behind each piece.
Before I realized it, my feet were working again. Maybe his enthusiasm was just a factor of the museum’s newness. Maybe he was earning extra credit or fulfilling a work study obligation. But I’d like to think it was transcendent, connective power of art.