Strange Cargo: Jane Alexander at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine

All Souls Altar

Jane Alexander, The Sacrifices of God are a troubled spirit (Photograph by Mario Todeschini).

Okwui Enwezor described the ephemera of Africa that arrived in European docks as “strange cargo”: as it was unloaded from ship to warehouse by longshoremen, as it was bid on, sold, and displayed in wealthy homes, lost and rediscovered, each object shaped European visions of Africa. ‘Africa’ as we imagine it now, was shaped by that strange cargo. Later in his essay in the January 1996 issue of frieze, Enwezor asked, “Why do we never consider the achievements of those artists who at great professional cost and individual isolation have not only transcended but have equally transfigured the borders constituting the notion of Africanity?” South African artist Jane Alexander’s work, now positioned throughout the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights neighbourhood, is part of the tradition of Africa’s strange cargo, but it is freight that – possibly at the cost of easy audience engagement, and curators’ comprehension – certainly transfigures notions of Africanity. Hers are not the masks and pretty pictures of African bodies: the smiling faces (or incongruous bodies) from the Dark Continent. Instead, her figures make the viewer reflect on the grotesque triumphalism inherent in looking away in the face of suffering, on the cost of participating – and benefiting from – great sweeps of violence, and the solitude of bearing the brunt of marching empires that see nothing of your existence. Continue reading