Sweet Magnolia by Alison Saar

Alison Saar

Sweet Magnolia, 1993, Ceiling tin on wood with magnolia leaves, 198 x 114.9 x 97.8 cm, Private Collection, © Allison Saar, courtesy of the LA Louver, Venice CA

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Gomer, My Sweet Magnolia

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Sweet Magnolia features a naked African American woman figure carved from wood, overlaid with tin. Surrounded by actual magnolia leaves, her body merges with the land/tree roots, becoming a magnolia tree.

Sweet Magnolia also recalls Billy Holiday’s song Strange Fruit, with its haunting lines in which the scent of magnolias, ‘sweet and fresh’, is suddenly followed by the smell of ‘burning flesh’. The magnolia tree, after all, is not only the official state tree of Mississippi, but both tree and state were sites where African Americans were lynched.

In Hosea 2:3, 9–10, this intimate connection between the female body, nakedness, and land similarly takes on an uneasy tone underlain by violence. Gomer, a woman who is at once whore, wife of God’s prophet Hosea, mother of Hosea’s three children, and a metaphor for Israel, is threatened with impending punishment by being stripped naked, ‘turned into a wilderness and parched land’, and killed by thirst. This threat of stripping her involves violence and humiliation, and occurs thrice in Hosea 2.

The spiritual/religious infidelity of Israel is literally fleshed out by a dogged focus on the female body. ‘Whoring mother’ and ‘whoring land’ are amalgamated. Alison Saar’s female figure can intensify our appreciation of the vividness of this amalgamation. The fallen leaves of Sweet Magnolia point to parched surroundings, like those of the desert where Gomer awaits her fate. And Sweet Magnolia’s allusion to sites of lynching can also heighten our awareness of the violence against Gomer’s naked body, threatened as it is with an agonizing, slow death through thirst (v.3).

Sweet Magnolia’s female figure stands with one of her hands half-shielding her genitals, as if in response to God exposing her nakedness. The posture of her hand and fist, together with her tilted head (her eyes seeming to look heavenward), may suggest to us here the silent/ced Gomer—a Gomer questioning the violence inflicted on her. As a site of violence, Gomer begs the uneasy question of why a call for the religious reform of God’s people should take the form of such a physically explicit punishment inflicted on a woman’s body.

 

References

Dallow, Jessica. 2012. ‘Departures and Returns: Figuring the Mother’s body in the art of Betye and Alison Saar’, in Reconciling Art and Mothering, ed. by Rachel Epp Buller (Abingdon: Ashgate), pp. 57–70

Lynskey,Dorian. 2011. ‘Strange Fruit: The First Great Protest Song, 16 February 2011’, www.theguardian.com, [accessed 10 May 2019]


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