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Imagen de Yagul, from the series Silueta Works in Mexico 1973–1977, by Ana Mendieta
April 4 by Sam Gilliam
Blood/Sweat/Tears by Alison Saar

Ana Mendieta

Imagen de Yagul, from the series Silueta Works in Mexico 1973–1977, 1973, Chromogenic print, 50.8 x 33.97 cm, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 93.220, © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co. Photo: Don Ross, courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Sam Gilliam

April 4, 1969, Acrylic on canvas, 279.4 x 456.6 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum; Museum purchase, 1973.115, © Sam Gilliam; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC / Art Resource, NY

Alison Saar

Blood/Sweat/Tears, 2005, Wood, copper, bronze, paint, and tar, 182.9 x 61 x 50.8 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts, Museum; Purchase, W. Hawkins Ferry Fund, 2011.2, © Alison Saar; Courtesy of L.A. Louver, Venice, CA

Archiving Lament

Comparative Commentary by
Read by Richard Ayoade

Laments express sorrow, anger, and frustration in the wake of catastrophe. Weaving together themes of loss, suffering, memory, vengeance, forgiveness, hope, and healing, laments perform a fractured identity. Vacillating between what is said and unsaid, between speech and silence, laments inhabit the shifting space between ritual, text, and performance.

A lament, as James Wilce notes, is a public performance improvised in real time as ‘melodic weeping with words’ (2009: 33). By contrast, our memories of lament are privately composed and presented as a finished product. This leaves a gap between the performance and the tradition, text or images that remember and interpret a lament. Every lament bears a unique set of features—words, sounds, smells, gesture, dance, music, setting, history, etc. However, to transcend this context, a lament must be transposed into a coherent and repeatable ‘set of signs’. Each additional performance adds to this entextualization, since ‘performance is entextualization’ by restructuring the lament so that it becomes memorable (Wilce 2009: 33).

Laments express what Richard Schechner calls ‘restored behavior’—the redeployment of past ‘strips of behavior’ in the present so that ‘individuals and groups’ can ‘rebecome what they once were’, or even, ‘what they never were but wish to have been or wish to become’ (1985: 37–8). Laments speak with a ‘double-voice’ in a ‘double-time’, thus amplifying the griever’s voice by echoing what has been said in another age (Wilce 2009: 58). This patina of antiquity lends authority. By incorporating inherited grievances into her own performance, the griever’s laments survive.

These dynamics are evident in Lamentations 1 and the artworks selected here. Written in the aftermath of three military assaults that left Jerusalem in ruins and its inhabitants in exile, a narrator compares Jerusalem to a woman who is the victim of violence and exploitation (1:1–11b). The personified city herself interrupts to implore God to ‘see’ (ra'ah) her affliction (1:9, 1:11c–22). As Kathleen O’Connor notes, a gender politics is at play here. The narrator’s ‘dispassionate description’ has ‘provoked’ Jerusalem to speak. She does not ask for ‘the return of her children, for freedom, or for the return of past splendor’. She only ‘wants God to see her pain’, but ‘God does not reply’ (O’Connor 2002: 22).

Standing behind this exchange is a longstanding tradition in antiquity that objectified women as ‘lament-loving’. Women typically played the emotive role of performers; men the intellectual role of archivers. This established, as Wilce notes, an ‘emotional regime’ of reserve that continues today (2009: 62–70). Jerusalem’s persistence therefore resists the ‘domineering logic of the archive’ that would make her performance ‘disappear’ from memory (Blocker 2004: 106). Of course, the actual lament that inspired Jerusalem’s voice goes unrecorded. We can only imagine the pain and horror she experienced. We can only trust God heard and saw her suffering.

Similar tensions exist in Ana Mendieta’s Imagen de Yagul (1973). Lying, as if dead, in the ruins of a Zapotec tomb, the flowers covering her body refer to both a common mourning practice and a deeper process of death and resurrection. Like other works from her series Silueta Works in Mexico 1973-1977, Mendieta is both the performer and archivist of this intersectional work, thus upsetting the usual gender politics of lament.

Alison Saar’s Blood/Sweat/Tears (2005) is a life-sized statue of a naked, grieving figure clothed in bronze droplets representing either blood, sweat, or tears. Highlighting the struggles of African-American women, Saar draws from African indigenous art and from the myth of Persephone and Demeter, goddesses who are cursed to grieve periodically for eternity. This statue also remembers the death of her father, Richard. She thus highlights the ‘double-voice’ and ‘double time’ features of lament.

Sam Gilliam’s April 4 (1969) remembers the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Gilliam pours colours on a canvas that he folds repeatedly before hanging it loosely on a wall. The circles of red suggest gunshots and blood. The purple background suggests royalty. The colours caught in the folds trace an outline that is reminiscent of the Shroud of Turin. Nonetheless, the work’s abstraction destabilizes the archiving process. Despite its resilient beauty, King’s memory must be recreated in our minds to understand the work’s message. We are thus invited to perform our own lament from the loosely constructed archive Gilliam creates, to imagine what we wish to have been or wish to become.



Blocker, Jane. 2004. What the Body Cost: Desire, History, and Performance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press)

O’Connor, Kathleen M. 2002. Lamentations and the Tears of the World (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books)

Schechner, Richard. 1985. Between Theater and Anthropology (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press)

Wilce, James M. 2009. Crying Shame: Metaculture, Modernity, and the Exaggerated Death of Lament (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell)