Jane Alexander: PHOTO-BOOK

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Of Beasts and Men Anna Tietze

In the mid-1980s, Jane Alexander made her entry onto the South African art scene as a sculptor of the body. The notorious Butcher Boys of 1985-86 followed on earlier works which had explored this theme, including Untitled – two works of 1982 and 1985-86 – Domestic Angel of 1984, and Dog of 1984-85. In all these works, the bodies were hybrid forms: part human, part animal. Untitled of 1982 and Domestic Angel presented the body as part bird and possessed a delicate vulnerability. By contrast, in Dog and Untitled of 1985-86 it was heavy, threatening, a four-legged beast. This was a motif explored to its fullest in Butcher Boys, the iconic work for which the artist became famous. Given the important part it played in Alexander’s photomontages of this period, it is worth analysing it here in some detail. Butcher Boys presents three figures on a low wooden bench. Without a back for support, they lean forward, supporting themselves on their knees or on the bench, and stare intently in different directions. From foot to head they are men. Dark codpieces clamped over the genital areas of two of the figures evoke thoughts of trussed animals as well as of damaged or deformed human bodies. The theme of damage is evoked further in the torsos where a deep vertical scar, beginning just above navel height, travels, broadening, up into the skulls. It is echoed on their backs by an even deeper laceration, a kind of hacked-open spinal ridge. The heads which sit on top of these bodies are the most mutated of all. They have a basically human form in the forehead, cheekbone and jaw regions, and their eyes and eyebrows are human in shape and alertness. The faces are, like the rest

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of the bodies, quite hairless. And yet they have been given an animal aspect by the damage inflicted on them. A prominent, stained ridge furrows the brow vertically, echoing the torn chest. The ears, once-human, have been sliced off to reveal torn holes in two instances and inverted horns in the third. Both nose and mouth have been sheared off vertically, leaving an effect of a flattened snout. One horn, and another bedraggled trace of one, sprout from the central figure’s head. The third figure sports two bull-like horns, one intact, the other a little damaged. The important point about these heads however, and in this lies their visual impact, is that they are not straightforwardly mutated. They are not animal heads resting on human bodies, but human heads semi-animalised through mutation. And the sense in which they have partly transformed themselves, partly been transformed, is what lends them a repellent force. They have sprouted horns, or pieces of horns – and at the same time, they have been savaged and had ears, a nose, and mouth hacked off, leaving the effect of a snout or animal muzzle. In the case of the left-hand figure, the animal indications have been pushed quite far, a cleft chin suggesting something like damage long since suffered and now naturalised. But in the other two figures, the sense is very strong of recent mutilation, of open, raw wounds, still hideous. The effect is made more powerful by the juxtaposition of these damaged heads with the figures’ shapely arms and legs, the latter noticeably smooth, firm, youthful. Clearly a central theme of this work is destructiveness or mutilation; the title Butcher Boys would make this obvious if the figures themselves had not already done so. But while the title suggests that the figures themselves are the mutilators in question, the figures make clear that they are in fact – or also – victims of mutilation. And yet they are muscular young adult male bodies, and they sit, looking assertive and predatory, on their functional bench. Within each figure, then, is contained the idea of both extreme aggressor and desperate victim. Speculatively one might say that we are being asked to view in metaphorical terms the damage done to minds by their own brutality of thought and behaviour. Butcher Boys, 1985-86 Reinforced plaster, animal bone, horn, oil paint, wooden bench 128.5 × 213.5 × 88.5cm Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town




Clearly, one would have to connect this to the political events of the mid-1980s in South Africa and the artist’s response to the violence of the times. But beyond their specific political reference, the figures have an enduring impact because they arouse our fears of physical deformity, the decay of the body, and physical mutation over which we have no control. Like many of Alexander’s works, Butcher Boys revolves around the theme of the wavering line between humanness and bestiality, intactness and decay. The work is the stuff of our dreaming mind and its primitive fears. These works link Alexander to a Romantic fascination with ‘animal man’, the body deformed by grotesque desires, a theme explored by late-18th-century artists such as Fuseli, Blake and Goya. But if those early artists often envisaged the animal straightforwardly as symbol of the bestial, our attitudes to the animal world have become far more nuanced. We are now as likely to view animals as mute, powerless victims of human aggression as we are to fear the danger they pose. One of the key undercurrents of Alexander’s animalised body imagery is perhaps that it taps into our sense of the unknowability of animals, whose means of communication we do not share and who are therefore condemned to suffer us in silence. From this arises Untitled, 1985-86 Reinforced plaster, oil paint, bone, found wooden armchair, leather, rubber Crown Mines stretcher strap 132 × 64 × 80cm

Domestic Angel, 1984 Synthetic clay, oil paint, found bird wings, twine 40 × 14 × 17cm

Untitled, 1982 Reinforced plaster, bone, watercolour, wax 220 × 160 × 100cm Wits Art Museum, Johannesburg


This and previous pages Butcher Boys, 1985-86


our sense of their vulnerability and pathos. Alexander brings these associations of the animal – part savage, part innocent – into her studies of the human predicament through her motif of the mutated body. Fundamentally her work probes very personal and human issues of mortality, fear of others and fear of self. Beyond her sculptural work, the artist explored the issue of the vulnerable, sometimes grotesque, sometimes menacing body in the series of 46 photomontages made in the period 1981 to 1995. In the technique of photomontage, Alexander found a way of creating a ‘virtual’ installation, with actors juxtaposed in significant settings, so it is no surprise that the photomontages frequently reference her sculpted bodies, which now take their place in an eerie drama. Where, in the alienated setting of the gallery space, the sculpted works might lose some of their associative impact, the technique of photomontage allowed the artist to make them actors in a sort of theatre. And it is the damaged body of the Butcher Boys that reappears most often on this virtual stage. Sometimes the quotation from the sculptural work is direct, sometimes more oblique, but the familiar constituents are there: the hairless head, the muzzle, the hollowed eyes, the hunched, thrusting posture. We are in the world of skulls, cows, apes – half-men. The Cow House, Warehouse, Trading was listless, and Shepherd 1 all feature the abattoir, the slaughterhouse. In The Cow House, a sea of cows’ heads in narrow pens diverges towards the foreground on either side of a central passageway. A naked female figure, dancing, running, occupies the distant section of this passage. In the foreground, seen from behind, are hunched, bald, ageing male heads, blocking the female figure’s exit. In Warehouse, the abattoir is a sea of hanging butcher’s hooks. Some carcasses hang from them in the middle distance, but the vast room is empty of live presences except at the front where a cow-like head juts into the immediate foreground from the right, while a butcher boy sits behind it. The ‘cow’ is in fact a quote from Alexander’s own, earlier sculpture Dog; with only its head and shoulders present here, it metamorphoses into the larger animal, and assimilates itself closely to the butcher boy head behind it.

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1 Alexander distinguishes between ‘titles’ and ‘captions’. She regards captions as a more integral part of the work and indicates them with a combination of capitals and lower-case nouns, as in Trading was listless. Functioning somewhat like comments, the captions have a closer and more conversational relationship to the images than do titles.


The third work, Shepherd, carries gruesome humour in its title. The shepherd is a young abattoir attendant dressed in the statutory heavy white waterproof coat and boots. He carries a long-handled hook, reminiscent of the shepherd’s crook, but which here serves to unhook carcasses. Chains and hooks are plentiful; a worker in the middle distance prepares to attach to one of them some kind of mummified human form. At right, on a tangle of equipment which becomes a sort of plinth, sits a highlighted butcher boy head. Trading was listless returns to the abattoir with, this time, the Butcher Boys’ precursor, the seated figure of Untitled, in attendance. Men in white coats and boots, one of them hooded, shuffle off to the right in the background behind some hanging carcasses. The seated male figure sits, as if in judgment, at a side entrance. It is noticeable that, in this work and in Shepherd and Warehouse, the butcher boy head, or its clone, functions very much as spectator-commentator. In other photomontages such as Ford or Landscape it does the same. In yet other works, such as The Cow House or Interior, the bald male head fills this role, but rather differently. In this case, the spectator appears to be a sadistic presence which stares gloatingly at some vulnerable other. Where the butcher boys are in attendance, their spectatorship is modified by the fact that they too are mutilated. They are poignant witnesses to another piece of destruction, ambivalently positioned both as aggressors and victims. BY THE END OF TODAY YOU’RE GOING TO NEED US again exhibits this ambivalence. In a passageway of an underground train station, the butcher boys sit, now on two benches, but in the same respective positions. They fill the walkway and, dimly lit, they are ominous-looking presences. Behind them, highlighted on the wall, is an advertisement bearing the slogan of the title.2 On the one hand, these waiting figures seemed to be poised ready for the brutal defence of some other player (ourselves?) not pictured. But the light falls most evenly and clearly on the mournful face of the left-hand butcher boy, with his downturned horns. The elegant pose of his body, too, has its effect. Within these figures lie great suggestive contrasts – of

2 The work’s title mirrors the capitals of the advertisement.



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brutishness and vulnerability, savage assertiveness and nervous doubt. At the restorer, a work of 1995, offers a kind of postscript to the heady drama of the butcher boys’ mid-1980s lives in sculpture and print. Once quoted and requoted in works of great urgency and anger, these creatures now – in a new political climate? – live a quieter life. At the gallery restorer, and on their backs, though still straining forward with some of their old urgency, these icons of the destructive instinct are waiting to be repaired. Inside the environment of the gallery, they have been tamed, and now are cosseted and protected. Behind them, and next to the gallery’s restorer, hangs one of George Stubbs’ serene paintings of a gleaming thoroughbred. Stubbs’ dignified work, referencing the patrician world of the horse race, coexists bizarrely with the massive forms of the butcher boys. The latter are no longer active players. Fully canonised now as ‘high art’, they are subjected to an embarrassing kind of egalitarianism which draws no distinction between them and the works that surround them. They are presided over by a very human man, whose size contrasts with theirs, so that their massiveness is enhanced. Nevertheless, they are on their backs and helpless. In this new post-activist world of 1990s South Africa, they appear to say, security is gained, but at the cost of power and impact. More deeply, they speak of the humiliations time wreaks on the body. Given Alexander’s interest in the interrelatedness of aggression and vulnerability, the adult male (or predatory animal) body is a natural motif for her to work with. But other of the photomontage images explore vulnerability more directly, by focusing on the body of a woman, a child, a baby, a dead body. The images of women are rarely comfortable. The danger of her position in The Cow House has already been noted. Elsewhere, in works such as Phone me for secret, Woman in a two-piece, or Convention – which references the sculptural work Stripped (“Oh Yes” girl) – there is a similar sense of the fragile body exposed. Arms often hang stiffly on either side of the body, signifying a body without agency. Heads are bowed, faces often masked. In Service, the sex worker is caged; in Fragmented Group the African Madonna, face half-obscured, is towered over by the male figure behind her. This male figure,


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one of the body casts of Khoi/San from the South African Museum, is trapped within its display case so is hardly a free agent but here, juxtaposed with the female body, it acquires a sort of majesty and potency to her modesty. In other works – Delivery, Confinement, Lost child – the body of an infant does the work of metaphorising vulnerability. In the first two, the vulnerable body is beset by grasping adult hands and juxtaposed against the primally disturbing image of the neon-lit underground tunnel. We are reminded of our emergence into the world from the womb, but also of the chill and danger of that world. The dizzying recessional perspective of these tunnels, streaming away behind the babies’ bodies, surely evokes death too. These images of the infant, in limbo between life and death, are closely allied to Demonstration with wrapped man and “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” Psalm 51, v 7 with their connotations of the cadaver; the body in Demonstration is watched by a careless theatre crowd while that of “Purge me with hyssop” is guarded by the butcher boys and a naked youth. This naked youth features in a group of photomontages on Nazi themes, all of 1995.3 In his healthy perfection he is the Aryan ideal, and his confident posture, with arms on hips or outstretched, places him at the opposite end of the spectrum to the defenceless bodies of Alexander’s infants or women. But still, in all the images in which he appears, he is dwarfed by larger bodies or structures – classical columns, large uniformed mannequins, over-flying bomber planes – so that while we fear what he might become, we also feel his vulnerability. These images of the German Reich have a personal resonance for the artist since her father, of mixed Gentile-Jewish descent, left Germany for South Africa to escape this regime. South Africa in turn became a site of political brutality, and never more so than in the period in which Alexander herself was coming of age as an artist. Her art is impossible to understand without reference to this context; its constant replaying of the theme of the damaged body is a response to the literal and metaphorical damage done to bodies in South Africa’s apartheid period. Works

3 These works are based on photographs taken by Alexander in East Berlin in 1982.


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Bom Boys, 1998 Fiberglass, synthetic clay, acrylic paint, found clothing, 36 medium-density fibreboard squares 105 Ă— 360 Ă— 360cm


such as Gannet, Search, Volk and Beauty in a landscape reference this history very directly, with their images of uniformed figures, raised fists, and the abandoned dead. On the whole, however, the power of the photomontages – as of so much of Alexander’s sculptural work of this period – springs from the avoidance of an unambiguous message. This is achieved, on the one hand, by the use of the animal-human hybrid whose strangeness and multiplicity of connotations prevents easy ‘decoding’. It is achieved, on the other hand, by the ‘message scrambling’ inherent in the photomontage technique where distinctly unlike things baffle us by their improbability. A notable feature of Alexander’s work is its self-referentiality: an image is introduced in one work and then reused in others so that it acquires multiple associations, encouraging us to see each work as part of a surreal continuum rather than as an isolated statement. A familiar figure or motif from one work reappears in a new setting, carrying with it some of its earlier life and impact but requiring from us an adjustment to its new context. What emerges ultimately from these images is a sense of pathos, horror and unease. A fine example of this is Interior where an electric chair sits centre stage in Harbinger with rainbow, 2004 Pigment print on cotton paper 65 × 84.5cm


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an elegant interior with mirror, draped curtains and wood panelling. An intelligently watchful dog and the hunched figure of a bald, heavyset man contemplate each other across the room. Or there is Landscape, an amalgam of a stone archway of great antiquity, decorated with cherubic faces at each side, ground strewn with rubble, a dead animal, a human head seen from behind, and the right-hand figure of the Butcher Boys, superimposed on a clad human body. Beauty and horror, life and death, past and present coexist in this image. Finally, there is Ford, which combines the smashed front of a Ford truck, a watching youth, and one of the ubiquitous butcher boys. Darkness hollows out the eyes of the butcher boy, and the shadows catch his forehead. One hangdog horn, the other broken, and the damaged snout complete the image of mournfulness. The butcher boy’s chest and left arm co-function as the lower back and bottom of the watching youth; one head sprouts from the other, so that these two appear symbiotically linked. The image draws on a newspaper photograph of township violence, and perhaps youth and butcher boy are meant to appear as two manifestations of the same sinister force. But the lingering



Post Conversion Syndrome (in the wild), 2003 Pigment print on cotton paper 65 Ă— 96.5cm Johannesburg Art Gallery; University of Cape Town


Harbinger with Ghost and Hobbled Ruminant, 2004/2007 Fiberglass resin, oil paint, carved wooden walking sticks, rubber boots, gemsbok horns, rubber strap, cotton cloth, found clothing, rooikat (caracal) pelt, lacing, machetes, sickles, industrial strength gloves Installation view, Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York


impression is of a saddened butcher boy at a scene of devastation. In the years since the appearance of these early photomontages, Alexander has continued to work in this medium and has continued to produce powerful sculptural work focused on the concept of the man-animal. But there have been changes. While in this later work the sculptural forms still present the body of the man or boy (women have remained scarce in the artist’s oeuvre) mutated at the head into dog, monkey, occasionally vulture-like bird, these hybrid creatures are no longer damaged. Heads are occasionally masked, as in Bom Boys of 1998, but faces are typically intact and the overall effect of the bodies is positively sprightly, the creatures ready for action. The iconic image of the wounded animal has gone. The photomontages have evolved too. In the series Adventure Centre of 2000 the mutant creatures find themselves caught up in the excitement of town. In later works such as Harbinger with rainbow of 2004 or Post Conversion Syndrome (in the wild) of 2003, they are in an almost empty landscape where the drama of relationships has been replaced with the study of a solitary actor on an empty stage. This is a marked feature of the photomontage series of 2005-9, Survey: Cape of Good Hope, whose central theme is the environment, the land, and where, as the artist notes, living creatures now largely signaled by no more than an ‘invisible residue’4. There are of course exceptions to this theme within the series, but fine works such as Barn, Farm, Powerlines or Formal settlement (a ‘faceless’ low-income housing block) give us a powerful sense of our smallness and insignificance in relation to the inanimate world. These images, with their tendency towards a horizontal format, and often with a low horizon line, present a world of limitless (though not necessarily uncomfortable) emptiness. The more recent photomontages throw into sharp relief the qualities of those of the 1980s and early 90s. In these earlier works, small fragments of space are densely packed with objects and figures, giving them their characteristic atmosphere of claustrophobia and tension. Bodies are hemmed in by objects, an effect reinforced by the ‘portrait’, taller-than-wide format, of some of the images.


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4 J Alexander, ‘Survey: Cape of Good Hope 2005-9’, in P Subirós (ed), Jane Alexander: Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope) (New York and Barcelona: Museum of African Art and Actar, 2011), 63.


By comparison with the later photomontages, another striking feature of the early works is their highly expressive manipulation of light and shade where sharply highlighted forms against deep shadows, or vice versa, spell menace – see the silhouetted bodies in Delivery or the horror of the shadowed body against the highlighted theatre stands in Demonstration with wrapped man. Finally, a third and very powerful feature of the early photomontages is the way in which they locate the spectator within the picture. As has been noted earlier, the shadowy head of a butcher boy or a heavyset man seen from behind frequently positions itself as a viewer of the scene from within the picture space. Sometimes we glimpse this ‘viewer within the picture’ only partially, as in The Cow House or Woman in a two-piece; sometimes it is located at the lower forefront of the image, sometimes in the distance, behind or flanking the drama. The effect is always uncanny, and ambiguous. We are simultaneously made complicit in the spectatorship of the ‘viewer within the picture’ and afforded a heightened identification with the figure that is viewed. These works play very subtly with our subliminal awareness of and response Barn, Farm, Powerlines, Formal settlement, details from Survey: Cape of Good Hope, 2005-9 Pigment prints on cotton paper Dimensions variable


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to space, and the position of figures (and ourselves) within it. We are both voyeuraggressor and vulnerable object of the gaze. Clearly these images were fuelled by the socio-political tensions of the 1980s and early 90s. But for all this, it has been suggested, they do far more than simply reference their times. On the contrary, they owe their impact to the fact that they so heavily disguise the events of the times in metaphor. Through this visual metaphor they offer comment on deeper and timeless issues of subjective experience. It is an irony that repressive, craven societies can generate intensely rich art. Jane Alexander’s early work, born of horror at the repressiveness of the social order, transmuted that horror into images of particular potency. Fundamentally a visual discourse on the life of the fragile embodied self, the images long outlive the events that spawned them.

Anna Tietze is a lecturer in Visual and Art History at Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town.


Portrait of a man (adventurer) by J A Pamilton and J Alexander


Phone me for secret


In the arcade


Woman in a two-piece


Sleeping man


The Cow House


This is Television 1


Jane discovers famine






“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.� Psalm 51, v 7




Demonstration with wrapped man




Trading was listless












Lost child


Chernobyl medical aid rally, Leningrad


Museum boy


Triumph over capitalism: FĂźr Deutsche Geschichte


“Sauberkeit ist Gesundheit�: ancestor


Gesellschaft Waren: Merchandise for society


Triumph over capitalism: “Die Ewige Flamme”


Triumph over capitalism: Lustgarten








Belief and Ritual / Geloof en Ritueel: Portrait of a Man


Fragmented Group


Beauty in a landscape: born Aliwal North 19-?, died Boksburg 1992




Belief and Ritual / Geloof en Ritueel: Respecting






At the restorer


Man with Stability Unit and tower


Portrait of a man with landscape and procession (Bantu Stephen Biko 1946-1977)




PHOTOMONTAGES 1981-1995 Portrait of a man (adventurer) by J A Pamilton and J Alexander 1995, 15 × 25.5cm Phone me for secret 1995, 14.5 × 23cm In the arcade 1995, 16.5 × 20.5cm Woman in a two-piece 1984, 36 × 29.5cm Sleeping man 1984, 27 × 21cm The Cow House 1985, 24.5 × 21cm This is Television 1 1984, 25 × 24.5cm Jane discovers famine 1981, 16 × 20.5cm

Confinement 1981, 24 × 17cm

Jamboree 1986, 26 × 27.5cm

Interior 1981, 20.5 × 18cm

Belief and Ritual / Geloof en Ritueel: Portrait of a Man 1995, 16.5 × 24.5cm

Shepherd 1986, 30 × 21cm Service 1983, 21.5 × 16.5cm

Fragmented Group 1995, 23 × 18cm

Gannet 1985, 28.5 × 23.5cm

Beauty in a landscape: born Aliwal North 19-?, died Boksburg 1992 1995, 22 × 20cm

Lost child 1985, 24.5 × 24cm

Landowner 1995, 17.5 × 22.5cm

Chernobyl medical aid rally, Leningrad 1986, 29 × 19.5cm

Belief and Ritual / Geloof en Ritueel: Respecting 1995, 22 × 23.5cm

Museum boy 1986, 30 × 21.5cm

Convention 1995, 18 × 27cm

Warehouse 1985, 31 × 19.5cm

Triumph over capitalism: Für Deutsche Geschichte 1995, 25 × 17cm

Search 1981, 25.5 × 14cm

“Sauberkeit ist Gesundheit”: ancestor 1995, 25 × 15.5cm

At the restorer 1995, 20 × 18cm

“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” Psalm 51, v 7 1986, 19.5 × 23.5cm

Gesellschaft Waren: Merchandise for society 1995, 29 × 19.5cm

Man with Stability Unit and tower 1994, 20.5 × 29.5cm

Landscape 1985, 26.5 × 27.5cm

Triumph over capitalism: “Die Ewige Flamme” 1995, 19.5 × 24.5cm

Portrait of a man with landscape and procession (Bantu Stephen Biko 1946-1977) 1995, 18 × 25cm

Demonstration with wrapped man 1981, 20.5 × 16cm

Triumph over capitalism: Lustgarten 1995, 19.5 × 22cm


Ford 1986, 32 × 24cm

Reconstruction 1995, 18 × 27.5cm

Trading was listless 1986, 29.5 × 21.5cm

Volk 1986, 33.5 × 24.5cm

Delivery 1981, 20 × 15cm

Fibre-based silver prints Paper size 40 × 30.5cm


Jane Alexander’s PHOTO-BOOK was first published by the artist in 1995. The original essay by Anna Tietze was written in response to this in 1996, and is published here, revised and expanded, for the first time. Jane Alexander gratefully acknowledges Graham Goddard and Otto Julius Alexander, Lucy Alexander, Giuseppe Cattaneo, Alex D’Angelo, David Goldblatt, Gabrielle Guy, Mark Lewis, John Nankin, Warren Siebrits, Anna Tietze, Mark van Dyk.

Published by Stevenson ISBN 978-0-620-71798-4 © 2016 for images: Jane Alexander © 2016 for text: Anna Tietze © 2016 for PHOTO-BOOK: Jane Alexander All rights reserved. Printing of original photomontages: Graham Goddard Photo credits: p7, 10-12 Svea Josephy; p8 courtesy of Strauss; p9 (left) Jane Alexander; p9 (right) Roger Woolridge; p17 courtesy of the Tobu Museum, Tokyo; p20, 27-109 Mario Todeschini Design: Gabrielle Guy Printed by Hansa Print, Cape Town

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