The daughter of Betye Saar, a seminal African-American artist, and Richard Saar, a ceramicist and conservator who was white, Saar describes herself ‘floating between two worlds’ (Dallow 2005: 27). Following her mother, Saar creates from reclaimed material. In the case of Blood/Sweat/Tears, these are beams of lumber that she carves with a chain saw, ceiling tin that she moulds into a base, copper strips that she nails to the wooden core, and droplets made of cast bronze. Saar also draws upon African rituals and mythology to create critical intersections between spirituality, ancestry, and identity. Following her father, Saar employs European sculptural disciplines and appropriates the European mythic canon, in particular Persephone and Demeter, goddesses cursed to grieve periodically for eternity.
This double-lineage is evident in Blood/Sweat/Tears, which achieves two complementary purposes. The first is to ‘make visible black women’s historical struggle to reclaim their own bodies, turning themselves from exoticized objects into critical subjects’ (Dallow 2004: 93). Rather than an object of projection, Saar’s grieving figure claims the viewer’s attention. This body language upsets the normative gaze, which has long eroticized African-American bodies. Rather than Eros, one sees Thanatos, as well as a deeper transition from death to life.
The second is the ‘historical role of the body as a marker of identity, and the body’s connection to contemporary identity politics’ (Dallow 2004: 93). Saar’s use of reclaimed materials reminds us that our bodies carry within them ‘the former lives’ and ‘histories of what they have witnessed’ (Lux 2011). Thereby, Blood/Sweat/Tears communicates the layered complexity of her grief—the personal grief she bears over losing her father as well as the political grief she feels as a biracial woman living in a culture that routinely ignores and denies the suffering bodies of African Americans. Lamentation, her work suggests, is not the exception but the norm, and, ironically, the bridge between the two worlds she inhabits.
Dallow, Jessica. 2004. ‘Reclaiming Histories: Betye and Alison Saar, Feminism, and the Representation of Black Womanhood’, Feminist Studies 30(1): 74–113
———. 2005. ‘The Art of Creating a Legacy’, in Family Legacies: The Art of Betye, Lezley, and Alison Saar, ed. by Jessica Dallow, and Barbara C. Matilsky (Seattle: University of Washington Press)
Lux Art Institute. 2011. ‘Artist-in-Residence: Alison Saar’, www.luxartinstitute.org [accessed 20 October 2018]
1How lonely sits the city
that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the cities
has become a vassal.
2She weeps bitterly in the night,
tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
she has none to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
they have become her enemies.
3Judah has gone into exile because of affliction
and hard servitude;
she dwells now among the nations,
but finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her
in the midst of her distress.
4The roads to Zion mourn,
for none come to the appointed feasts;
all her gates are desolate,
her priests groan;
her maidens have been dragged away,
and she herself suffers bitterly.
5Her foes have become the head,
her enemies prosper,
because the Lord has made her suffer
for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away,
captives before the foe.
6From the daughter of Zion has departed
all her majesty.
Her princes have become like harts
that find no pasture;
they fled without strength
before the pursuer.
in the days of her affliction and bitterness
all the precious things
that were hers from days of old.
When her people fell into the hand of the foe,
and there was none to help her,
the foe gloated over her,
mocking at her downfall.
8Jerusalem sinned grievously,
therefore she became filthy;
all who honored her despise her,
for they have seen her nakedness;
yea, she herself groans,
and turns her face away.
9Her uncleanness was in her skirts;
she took no thought of her doom;
therefore her fall is terrible,
she has no comforter.
“O Lord, behold my affliction,
for the enemy has triumphed!”
10The enemy has stretched out his hands
over all her precious things;
yea, she has seen the nations
invade her sanctuary,
those whom thou didst forbid
to enter thy congregation.
11All her people groan
as they search for bread;
they trade their treasures for food
to revive their strength.
“Look, O Lord, and behold,
for I am despised.”
12“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look and see
if there is any sorrow like my sorrow
which was brought upon me,
which the Lord inflicted
on the day of his fierce anger.
13“From on high he sent fire;
into my bones he made it descend;
he spread a net for my feet;
he turned me back;
he has left me stunned,
faint all the day long.
14“My transgressions were bound into a yoke;
by his hand they were fastened together;
they were set upon my neck;
he caused my strength to fail;
the Lord gave me into the hands
of those whom I cannot withstand.
15“The Lord flouted all my mighty men
in the midst of me;
he summoned an assembly against me
to crush my young men;
the Lord has trodden as in a wine press
the virgin daughter of Judah.
16“For these things I weep;
my eyes flow with tears;
for a comforter is far from me,
one to revive my courage;
my children are desolate,
for the enemy has prevailed.”
17Zion stretches out her hands,
but there is none to comfort her;
the Lord has commanded against Jacob
that his neighbors should be his foes;
Jerusalem has become
a filthy thing among them.
18“The Lord is in the right,
for I have rebelled against his word;
but hear, all you peoples,
and behold my suffering;
my maidens and my young men
have gone into captivity.
19“I called to my lovers
but they deceived me;
my priests and elders
perished in the city,
while they sought food
20“Behold, O Lord, for I am in distress,
my soul is in tumult,
my heart is wrung within me,
because I have been very rebellious.
In the street the sword bereaves;
in the house it is like death.
21“Hear how I groan;
there is none to comfort me.
All my enemies have heard of my trouble;
they are glad that thou hast done it.
Bring thou the day thou hast announced,
and let them be as I am.
22“Let all their evil-doing come before thee;
and deal with them
as thou hast dealt with me
because of all my transgressions;
for my groans are many
and my heart is faint.”