Alison Saar’s Formidable Sculptures Honor Black Women’s Rebellion

Ayanna Dozier
Apr 27, 2023 9:56PM

Portrait of Alison Saar by Tom Lesser, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Alison Saar’s softly intricate sculptures of Black women are produced through the violence of a chainsaw. The process is indicative of the tensions at play across Saar’s practice: transformation of found materials and Black women’s historical pursuit of physical autonomy against white supremacist systems.

Saar’s most recent work responds to the legislative and physical obstacles around reproductive health in the U.S. Earlier this year, Saar had a solo show, “Uproot,” at L.A. Louver. And now, the artist has a solo show, “Cycle of Creativity: Alison Saar and the Toni Morrison Archives” at Art@Bainbridge, the gallery project of the Princeton University Art Museum, through July 9th. “Cycle of Creativity”—curated by Mitra M. Abbaspour, the institution’s Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art—examines the shared themes across Saar’s works with those of the late writer Toni Morrison. In particular, the exhibition amplifies Saar’s knack for unearthing Black spiritual and cultural legacies, which she uses artistically as well as for healing, an act of rebellion against contemporary oppressive systems.

Alison Saar
Stubborn and Kinky, 2023
L.A. Louver
Alison Saar
Hygiea (study), 2022
L.A. Louver

“I’m a real physical sculpture [artist].…That made more sense to me, taking these used recycled objects and have them speak to something outside of their normal use,” Saar said to Artsy. The artist’s multidisciplinary practice incorporates printmaking, drawing, and sculptural work, using found objects as a starting point.

Working with found objects runs in the family: Saar’s mother is the acclaimed assemblage artist and printmaker Betye Saar, and her sister Lezley Saar is a painter working with found objects as her canvas. “Growing up in the house of a female assemblage artist, found objects were always around the house. That was our family outing: to collect stuff, be that at estate sales, the gutter, or digging in people’s trash,” she said. “There was no shame there in gathering those objects.”

Alison Saar, Torch Song, 2020. © Alison Saar. Courtesy of the artist and L.A. Louver.

In Alison Saar’s practice, however, found objects are physically transformed into woodblocks for prints or sculptures. For example, in Torch Song (2020), the artist carved a life-size wood sculpture of a Black femme holding a ball of fire, strapped with piano keys like a belt of ammunition. The sculpture is impressively ferocious in both its scale, content, and medium, with the rough texture of the wood functioning as a visual and physical protective barrier. As fierce as the work is, there is also a softness to the woman, who we presume to be a singer, as she stands with her mouth agape, wearing a floor-length gown with red lipstick. Saar, it seems, conjures armor and mysticism in an effort to protect this woman’s musical gift, to allow her to simply be herself.

The protection of Black women is a constant reference point in “Cycle of Creativity.” Here is a clear link to Morrison’s novels, where the precarity of Black girls across the 19th and 20th centuries is a constant theme (in, for example, The Bluest Eye, 1970, and Beloved, 1987). In Saar’s sculpture Cotton (2018), from the series “Topsy Turvy,” a young girl carries a sickle with cotton balls plaited in her hair as if they were growing there. In the accompanying 2021 print, Reapers, this young girl is portrayed among a chorus of young cottonheaded girls carrying weapons. Saar explained that she envisioned these girls emerging from the fields to terrorize their abusers. “A lot of the work is responding to madness that is outside my doors,” she explained.

Alison Saar, Cotton, 2018. © Alison Saar. Courtesy of the artist and L.A. Louver.

Cotton is a recurring material in Saar’s body of work, where she frequently examines how Black American women are entwined in its sociocultural history. In “Uproot,” the artist had several sculptures and paintings on cotton that referred to Black midwifery practices, particularly the use of cotton root to induce abortions. By unearthing medicine used by enslaved women, Saar creates artistic reminders of ways in which Black women charted a path of survival for themselves and for their community.

Saar drew inspiration for this work from Robin Coste’s book of poems Voyage of the Sable Venus (2015), which recast 40,000 years of imagery of Black women. In particular, Coste’s book critiques society’s insistence upon Black women straightening their hair to appear respectable, a critique that Saar’s work repeatedly takes up. “Uproot,” for example, featured prints and sculptures by Saar that examined the correlation between straightening creams and the link to uterine cancer by depicting women with long hair tied to one another, or upside down in a free fall, grasping their wombs.

Alison Saar, White Guise, 2019. © Alison Saar. Courtesy of the artist and L.A. Louver.

Saar explained that she had always grappled with the issues of Black hair politics in her work, referring to “expectations of dealing with our hair, to conform to workplace culture, or for others,” she said. “On the one hand, it is how I connected with my mother’s family [as] I, visually, look white, so the texture of my hair is one of the things that aligns my African American ancestry and was a way to bond with my cousins as we would all wait to get our hair done.”

Ultimately, Saar’s work honors the unruliness of Black femininity: the historical survivors who have crafted space for new generations to succeed in new ways. Saar’s figures never lose their femininity in exercising their power to defend themselves—they avoid appropriating the patriarchal, masculine image of violence. “Even though I’m pointing towards violence with sickles and scythes…[there is also a] calling and gathering,” she said. “I want the work to bring change through nurturing rebellion, education, love, and care.”

Ayanna Dozier
Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s Staff Writer.