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.
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]
2 Say to your brother, “My people,” and to your sister, “She has obtained pity.”
2“Plead with your mother, plead—
for she is not my wife,
and I am not her husband—
that she put away her harlotry from her face,
and her adultery from between her breasts;
3lest I strip her naked
and make her as in the day she was born,
and make her like a wilderness,
and set her like a parched land,
and slay her with thirst.
4Upon her children also I will have no pity,
because they are children of harlotry.
5For their mother has played the harlot;
she that conceived them has acted shamefully.
For she said, ‘I will go after my lovers,
who give me my bread and my water,
my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.’
6Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns;
and I will build a wall against her,
so that she cannot find her paths.
7She shall pursue her lovers,
but not overtake them;
and she shall seek them,
but shall not find them.
Then she shall say, ‘I will go
and return to my first husband,
for it was better with me then than now.’
8And she did not know
that it was I who gave her
the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and who lavished upon her silver
and gold which they used for Baʹal.
9Therefore I will take back
my grain in its time,
and my wine in its season;
and I will take away my wool and my flax,
which were to cover her nakedness.
10Now I will uncover her lewdness
in the sight of her lovers,
and no one shall rescue her out of my hand.
11And I will put an end to all her mirth,
her feasts, her new moons, her sabbaths,
and all her appointed feasts.
12And I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees,
of which she said,
‘These are my hire,
which my lovers have given me.’
I will make them a forest,
and the beasts of the field shall devour them.
13And I will punish her for the feast days of the Baʹals
when she burned incense to them
and decked herself with her ring and jewelry,
and went after her lovers,
and forgot me, says the Lord.
14“Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her.
15And there I will give her her vineyards,
and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth,
as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.
16“And in that day, says the Lord, you will call me, ‘My husband,’ and no longer will you call me, ‘My Baʹal.’ 17For I will remove the names of the Baʹals from her mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more. 18And I will make for you a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety. 19And I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. 20I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.
21“And in that day, says the Lord,
I will answer the heavens
and they shall answer the earth;
22and the earth shall answer the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and they shall answer Jezreel;
23and I will sow him for myself in the land.
And I will have pity on Not pitied,
and I will say to Not my people, ‘You are my people’;
and he shall say, ‘Thou art my God.’ ”