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Simone Alexander

Born, 1964 in London, England

Simone Alexander is a British artist, who trained at art school in London during the mid 1980s. Along with other women artists such as Amanda Holiday and Mowbray Odonkor, Simone Alexander seemed destined to follow in and indeed emulate the successes achieved by Sonia Boyce during the 1980s and on into the 1990s. Like her peers, Alexander’s work was characterised by a singular attachment to figurative painting and drawing. For the most part again, like a number of her contemporaries - Alexander took as her subjects the condition of Black women of the diaspora, identity politics, and the legacies of history. To this end together with artists such as Sonia Boyce, Mowbray Odonkor, and Claudette Johnson - she was responsible for some of the most interesting paintings and drawings of the Black woman, in a multiplicity of guises, personas and contexts, produced by Black women artists themselves during the 1980s.

Time and time again, like other Black women artists before and alongside her, Alexander embraced the vehicle of the self-portrait as a means of expressing herself and her ideas. In some ways, she did not merely or simply embrace the self-portrait. She emphatically transformed it into something wholly shorn or void of introspection. Alexander’s self-portraits were dramatic and arresting vehicles for critiquing such things as the male gaze, the objectification of women, and the vacuousness of the world of fashion and perfumery. Similarly, Alexander used the self-portrait to express solidarity to the people of South Africa in their struggle against apartheid. Like Odonkor, even those works of Alexander’s which were not, in a direct sense, self-portraits, reflected such a profound empathy on her part for the struggling Black women of the world, that they were, to a great extent, very much a part of Alexander’s body of self-portraiture.

In this regard, one of Alexander’s most remarkable pieces is Sharpville, Paris, London, New York, in which Alexander subverts the popular mechanism used within the fashion and perfumery worlds to indicate international sophistication and chic, by signifying, as part of their advertisements, the major outposts or locations from which their products derive and to which their products are marketed. Within such adverts, New York - Paris - London - Milano - Tokyo are frequently flagged as glamourous locations, reflective of equally glamourous products with which the purchaser can avail themselves, at least notionally, of said glamour. These are international destinations reflective of the world of Prada, Gucci, Donna Karan and Dolce&Gabbana. Yet in Alexander’s piece. Sharpville, the South African township, is inserted and repeated in the background of her self-portrait. The township was, in March of 1960, the scene of what became known as the Sharpeville Massacre, when South African police began shooting into a crowd of Black protesters. The incident became more than a grim and bloody episode in the struggle against apartheid. It became instead a rallying cry, a renewed focus, a fillip, for the anti-apartheid struggle, in much the same ways as the murder of Steve Biko and the Soweto shootings would likewise become, a decade and a half later. Within this work, Alexander extends profound empathy to apartheid’s victims and thereby acknowledges another generation of struggle.

As for the self-portrait itself, it featured Alexander, in faux glamourous pose, sternly, yet perhaps, ambiguously, returning the gaze and presenting an image of herself on her own terms, an image which was in essence the antithesis of the world of fashion and its obsession with notions of beauty and body type that oftentimes verge on the tyrannical. Scattered over the large picture of motifs, or paintings, of roses and rose petals. The flower, deeply symbolic, was used by other Black women artists such as Val Brown, Mowbray Odonkor, and Sonia Boyce, as a means of illustrating the specificities of themselves and the Black women of the world. Here, Alexander was similarly attracted to the rose, boldly using it to add humanity, love, and beauty to the stridency of the pieces messages. Within Sharpville, Paris, London, New York, the figure of a second Black woman can clearly be seen, departing the frame, or at least, looking out of it.

Alexander’s work was particularly wide-ranging, paying homage to, on the one hand, Salt-N-Pepa, the Grammy Award-winning American hip hop women from Queens, New York, who were particularly successful from the mid 1980s onwards, selling over 15 million albums and singles worldwide. And other the other hand, paying homage to Emmett Till, the 14 year old African American boy from Chicago, Illinois, who was brutally and viciously murdered in Mississippi, for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The shocking and violent lynching of Emmett Till was one of the most significant events to galvanise the American Civil Rights Movement and draw attention to the ongoing barbarism of the South, towards its African-American citizens.

Like other Black women artists (such as Claudette Johnson), Alexander has, with great fidelity and empathy, used her art to chronicle the lives of Black women and men, and gallery-going audiences have had too few opportunities to witness for themselves the power and magnitude of her creations.

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