Noted Los Angeles-based artist Alison Saar melds myth, tradition and nature to create art that looks at gender, race and culture from a woman’s perspective.
“The Nature of Us,” her current exhibition at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, explores the complexities of womanhood, and it honors, in particular, the black female body.
While the subject matter is often difficult, the work is celebratory in its acknowledgment of strength. Many of the figures are unclothed, but they are not eroticized—they are open and exposed, sometimes free, sometimes vulnerable.
The show includes two-dimensional pieces, but the sculptures are the standouts. These are done in a range of materials including bronze, aluminum, fiberglass, copper sheeting and wood, and incorporate history-laden objects such as a cotton scale, old tools and ceiling tin.
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Several recurring symbols contribute to this work’s profound emotional depth. The moth, which represents the spirit world in many cultures, appears throughout the exhibition. “Sea of Serenity,” for example, is a woman with moths pinned to her, as if both she and the moths are specimens to be collected.
Saar uses the womb to address the rigor and purposefulness of giving life, as well as the birthing of ideas. Two figures have open wombs; “Foison” is alive with moths and flowers, but “Fallow” contains a stillborn fawn and brambles. In “Undone,” an upside-down bottle tree, representing lost ideas and aspirations, emerges from a woman’s womb. The work is mounted on the wall at a height of 14 feet, as if isolating and restricting the woman.
Saar looks to the Yoruban deities Ogun, the creator of metal tools and weapons, and Yemoja, the mother of all deities and the spirit representing creativity and fertility, to support her work and ideas. They represent two forces that drive her: the aggressive act of making sculptures with chainsaws and other equipment and the contemplative process of formulating ideas. Ogun was the inspiration for “Smokin Papa Chaud,” the lone male figure in the exhibition.
“Pearly,” which honors persistence in the face of prejudice, was inspired by Miss Lala, a 19th-century mixed-race acrobat whose many feats of strength included hanging by her teeth. But instead of being admired for her discipline and hard work, Saar says, she was considered an exotic being (despite her Central European birth) whose abilities came to her naturally.
In “Weight,” a field cotton scale balances a young woman on a swing with tools including skillets and a coal kettle. She clutches the swing’s ropes close to her body, as if she knows she will soon lose her last bit of freedom and be measured only by her domestic usefulness. But among the tools of drudgery are boxing gloves, so she can fight her way out of servitude.
“The Mammy Machine,” part of a series based on moonshine stills, is about how women of color are often assumed to be caretakers, there only to clean up other people’s messes. In this piece, dirty dishwater from a metal tub is fed into rubber breasts, which then drip the water back into the tub. It represents, Saar says, a closed system that needs to be broken.
Visually, the work in this exhibition is hushed, with burnished or patinaed surfaces in muted tones. The contrast between this surface quietness and the emotions roiling barely underneath gives “The Nature of Us” a shimmering intensity.
“The Nature of Us” at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture; ganttcenter.org; 704-547-3700; through July 8.