Allison Saar is known for her sculptures and installations which explore themes of African cultural diaspora and spirituality. Her sculptures are often life-sized and represent issues relating to race and gender. Her use of cast-off and found objects gives a vernacular folk art quality to her art.
Saar grew up surrounded by art. A biracial daughter of acclaimed artist Betye Saar and painter and conservationist Richard Saar, she developed her own artistic practice, creating sculptures made from restored found objects.
In 2016, L.A. Louver Gallery presented a magnificent show of her work whose themes were displacement and water. Her monumental, 12-foot tall “Breach (large figure on raft)” – now part of the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – was the centerpiece of the show. “Breach” shows a powerful nude female figure balancing her belongings on her head. The sculpture evokes a flood narrative, informed by the Great Mississippi River flood of 1927 that affected more than 630,000 people, one-third of whom were African Americans. This flood showcased the economic inequities between blacks and whites. Here the life-size figure is poised on a raft and uses a pole to navigate. This figure is based on Senegalese women, seen by Saar, who are able to balance heavy loads on their heads. Her figure’s elevation on a pedestal suggests eminence and can be likened to the caryatids of ancient Greece. Her skin is made from rusted plates of embossed ceiling tin with the entire sculpture made from wood, tin, and everyday objects.
“Breach” animates “Silttown Shimmy,” a smaller pedestal sculpture of a woman wrapped in her own embrace. This is another totemic female figure a bit more than 2 feet tall. This sculpture merges profile and frontal views as her head tilts toward her shoulder. Carved from wood, the base is composed of ceiling tin and rubbed with enamel paint, tar, and silt to create a rich patina. This figure is posed like a classical Venus.
Her 2018 sculpture “Tobacco (tobacco knife)” reimagines Topsy, the slave girl in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” wearing hammered metal and armed with a tobacco knife, the tool used by slaves on tobacco plantations. Her hair is an elaborate cotton crown as Saar presents Topsy as a regal symbol of defiance and powerful femininity.
Saar also introduces current events with water as the continuous theme in “Hades D.W.P.,” an illuminated wall that holds five etched-glass jars, one for each mythological river in ancient visions of hell. This work references the poisoned drinking water from the Flint River which caused unspeakable injury to the African Americans living in Flint, Michigan.
Saar also works with prints which relate closely to her sculptures and assemblages. Against her prints’ spare backgrounds, her figures resemble freestanding sculptures. Her prints are thematically complex, drawing upon her deep interest in the African diaspora and issues of gender, race, culture, and history. Saar says that much of her work may be interpreted as autobiographical. Nearly all of her sculptures and prints explore aspects of the female experience. Some of her female figures appear to morph into utilitarian objects such as brooms, referencing the conventional role of women.
She often portrays people interacting with evocative objects, such as snakes, which allude to myth and legend. Her color palette is influenced by hues representative of spirits: red for Shango, the Yoruba god of thunder, or blue for Yemaya, the Yoruba goddess of the sea. Sea imagery recurs in her work and may represent both good and evil. Her sculptures and prints both contain layered meanings which bring social inequities to the forefront of her art through symbolism and myth.
Saar’s work has been shown in dozens of solo and group exhibitions throughout the United States, especially in California and New York as well as in Japan, Austria, and Australia. She was included in the 1993 Whitney Biennial and has won numerous grants and awards. She won two Artist Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and two Joan Mitchell Foundation Awards among many others.
“The show, “Alison Saar: Of Aether and Earthe,” is a sculpture exhibition at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena and the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College. Saar is one of seven Black artists commissioned to create outdoor sculptures for Destination Crenshaw, a 1.3 mile corridor on Crenshaw Boulevard, celebrating Black Los Angeles. She is creating two 12-foot-tall forms, male and female, dressed in 1950s clothing with elaborate hairdos, filled with objects that reflect the Crenshaw area.
Her work is in the permanent collections of the Baltimore Art Museum, Birmingham Museum of Art, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Palm Springs Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Smithsonian Institution, Studio Museum in Harlem, Walker Art Center, and Whitney Museum of American Art to name a few.