Alison Saar likes to make sculptures of strong black women, standing: broad shoulders, wide posture, unshakeable in their convictions. She made a bronze monument to Harriet Tubman who presides over a traffic island at 122nd Street in Harlem. She created a small army of warrior-turned slave girls, inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s character, Topsy, for a major gallery show in Los Angeles. And now Ms. Saar, 64, has a new public sculpture on the Pomona College campus, commissioned by the Benton Museum of Art there: “Imbue,” a 12-foot-tall bronze evoking the goddess Yoruba Yemoja.
“Imbue” accompanies its largest museum investigation to date, “Of Aether and Earthe,” which will be held at two locations: the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, which plans to open its section in January; and the Benton, in Claremont, Calif., where its show is set up and ready to open when state coronavirus guidelines permit. Below are excerpts from a conversation with the artist about his new show and his ongoing obsessions.
Your new sculpture for Pomona shows Yemoja, the Yoruba goddess associated with childbirth and rivers, carrying a stack of heavy buckets on her head. What does Yemoja represent to you?
Yemoja comes back often to my work. I first discovered her when I was living in New York City in the 1990s, trying to struggle with being a young mother and having a career – it was like a real balancing act. . I did a piece then called “Cool Maman”, which balances pots and pans on her head, all in white enamel. I see Yemoja not only as an aid in terms of patience, poise, and child rearing, but also as a watery, invigorating spirit that feeds my creative process.
For your “Topsy turvyIn 2018 at LA Louver, you transformed Topsy, the enslaved character of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, into these fierce warriors. You even did a mixtape for the show, “Angry Songs for Angry Times”. How would you describe the source of your anger and was it difficult for you to channel or release it?
I’ve always wanted my work to not just be angry, but to point to a resolution or express some optimism. But it was more and more difficult to find something positive. After Obama was elected, we started seeing these horrible things bubbling up on social media – about growing watermelons in the White House or calling him and Michelle apes.
Since then, with Trump and the white supremacists, things have gotten even darker and more frightening. In “Topsy Turvy” the final piece was “Jubilee,” a figure cutting her hair and dancing, removing social chains and all the pain we carry. But it‘s still a painful lump in my eyes. I practically stopped worrying about sending a positive message; I felt it was okay to express your anger.
These figures are provocative but tender; they are fine warriors. Do you think about this contradiction?
I think it’s always about balance, and it comes down to the character of Yemoja, balancing so much on her head. Much of my life has been a balance between anger and a sort of serenity, and that is reflected in my process as well. I start by thinking about things, dreaming about things, but the actual work involves chainsaws and hammers and knives and blades and a lot of bandages – I get cut a lot. The physical struggle with the materials is very aggressive.
You’re used to using salvaged materials, whether it’s painting on bags of seeds or carving with tin on the ceiling. When did you discover ceiling tin as a material and what does it bring you that you couldn’t get from more traditional mediums like stone or wood?
When I moved from Los Angeles to New York in the 1980s, I had a job at the Studio Museum of Harlem, working as a sort of registrar before becoming an artist in residence there. As I walked towards the museum, I saw all this amazing ceiling tin on the sidewalk of people renovating townhouses. I would drag him to my studio. For one thing, it was hiding the imperfections of the wood carving underneath – I was using wood from the dumpster that had holes and cracks. But it also created some kind of skin or armor. I loved the pattern because it reminded me of African scarification, which in some ways is an external biographer, telling us who you are married to or what group you belong to.
Your Benton show includes a disturbing sculpture, “Conked,” where a woman swallows her own long hair, made of wire. Guess the title refers to the old-fashioned hair straightening process?
Conking is a type of hair treatment where many really toxic ingredients strip the hair of what causes it to curl. In the beginning, one of the ingredients was laundry. While straightening her hair, this woman ate the “laundry” or “lie”, trying to separate from her African American body, and that is why I am showing her head separated from her body. I’ve done a lot of severed heads at one point – guess I’ve had anger in my job for a while.
Do you think it’s fair to say that a survey of your work is also a survey of the things black women do to their hair?
Yes [laughs]. I am a little obsessed with the hair. I think part of that is being biracial and very clear, to the point of being seen as white; my hair is the only thing that looks like a real connection to my African American ancestry. And a lot of my young life was spent with my mom in salons and through those hilarious hair straightening rituals with my cousins in the kitchen.
You recently had a Black Lives Matter fundraising raffle called “Rise,” which shows a woman doing a mighty punch. Was there a particular source for your image?
I looked at a lot of pictures of women from the Black Panther movement with their Afros and their fists raised, then I contemporary the hairstyle to say that we are still fighting the same battle. I didn’t want it to be just one woman. I love Angela Davis, but there are many other women who go unrecognized, and I pay tribute to all of them. Some people see the Black Panthers as militant and scary. For me, women were very involved in education, free food, caring for the elderly, these amazing community practices that are always erased by the image of the guy holding the guns.
Printmaking is one of the most populist art forms, historically linked to ideas of accessibility and, sometimes, democracy. Do you see engraving as a political tool?
I never really thought my print was political, but rather populist, accessible and affordable. I love the story of the borders where people would print a poem and place the city with them, and I made a couple with poets.
You come from a family of artists. Your mother is Betye Saar. Your father, Richard Saar, was a curator and ceramicist. Your sister Lezley Saar is an artist. Have you ever considered doing something else for a living?
I really wanted to step out of the shadows of my mother’s reputation after high school. So when I was studying at Scripps, I worked with Dr Samella Lewis and was looking to become an art historian specializing in African diaspora and non-Western culture. I did a double major: fine arts and art history. I just think that in the end I felt better able to make art than write about it. It was more rewarding. It was something that I had been trained for all my life.