Blood/Sweat/Tears by Alison Saar

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

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The Lamenting Body

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
William J. Danaher, Jr.

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.

 

References

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]