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Visions of Power and Hope: Three SoCal Art Institutions Showcase the Art of Alison Saar

Listen to young poet Nyarae talk about how it is to live life as a young, Black girl in a highly divided society in her poem, "Black Magic."

On July 8, L.A. Louver Gallery in Venice sent out an email to its mailing list introducing a new print by Alison Saar entitled “Rise.” The linoleum print depicts a Black woman in a palette of rust, white and black holding up a fist in protest. She is determined, powerful, divine even — a quality suggested by the chisel marks that radiate outward from her head like a halo. L.A. Louver, which has represented Saar’s work since 2006, announced that Saar would donate all proceeds from the sale of the 100-print series, the gallery and Leslie Ross-Robertson to local Los Angeles community organizations: Dignity and Power Now (DPN) Summaeverythang Community Center and Crenshaw Dairy Mart. The print sold out in less than a day, raising $25,000 to support these local Los Angeles community organizations.

Saar was delighted by the response. “I wanted to do something for the Black Lives Matter movement and to help local organizations at this critical time,” explains Saar, “and what I can do is make art.” The daughter of acclaimed artist Betye Saar and ceramist and art conservator Richard Saar, Alison Saar has been living with and making art her whole life. She is currently one of the country’s most prominent and prolific Black female artists. This fall and in early 2021, a survey of Saar’s extraordinary body of work spanning more than three decades will be shown at three educational art institutions in the Los Angeles area — Pomona College’s brand new Benton Museum of Art in Claremont, the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena and the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College, also in Claremont. Despite COVID-19-related closures, each venue is devising ways to bring Saar’s work to the community at a time when we need to be paying attention to what this artist has to tell us.

Saar studied art and art history at Scripps College, receiving instruction and inspiration from Samella Lewis, a leader in the visual arts who founded the Museum of African Art in Los Angeles and co-founded the journal Black Art. Now Saar herself is an unstoppable force in the world of art, creating prints, sculptures and mixed media works that tackle race, gender and spirituality head on, pushing the boundaries of her materials and the limits of her audience’s understanding of this nation’s complex and often cruel cultural and social history. A gifted visual storyteller, Saar explores the mundane and mystical aspects of life, using figurative forms to focus on personal and cultural narratives that have always been important but have often been ignored.

The exhibition “Alison Saar: Of Aether and Earthe” at the Benton Museum and the Armory Center will present a survey of Saar’s sculptures, installations, paintings and drawings that explore “myths and archetypes, invisible bodies and hidden histories and timeless paradigms of grounding and transformation.” Conceived by Rebecca G. McGrew, Senior Curator of the Benton Museum, and Irene Tsatsos, Chief Curator at the Armory Center, the two-venue exhibition will highlight the dualities that are woven throughout Saar’s art — body and spirit, earth and air, personal and universal in its examination of elemental themes. The Benton Museum will feature work that emphasizes grounded, earthly and watery qualities, while the Armory Center will showcase work that suggests elements of fire, air and ether (aether).

Click left and right to see some of the elemental themes that run through Saar's work: 

"Bitter Crop," Alison Saar, 2018 | Courtesy of the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College, Claremont, CA
"Bitter Crop," Alison Saar, 2018 | Courtesy of the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College, Claremont, CA
"Grow’d," Alison Saar, 2019 | Courtesy of the Jordan Schnitzer Collection
"Grow’d," Alison Saar, 2019 | Courtesy of the Jordan Schnitzer Collection
"Sea of Serenity," Alison Saar, 2007 | Courtesy L.A. Louver, Venice, CA
"Sea of Serenity," Alison Saar, 2007 | Courtesy L.A. Louver, Venice, CA

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According to McGrew, “Alison Saar’s fundamental project for over forty years has been to create an alternative vision to the racialized imaginary of the United States by presenting ordinary Black individuals as dynamic agents of their own lives.” In 2020, with the growing international support for the Black Lives Matter movement, she continues, “this exhibition couldn’t be a more timely celebration of Saar’s figurative sculptures — endowed with muscular limbs, solid torsos and a determined assertion of their rightful place — that stand strong as protective totems and as eloquent monuments to hope.”

Powerful images of Black women have featured prominently in Saar’s work for decades now. Many of her sculpted and printed works depict female figures armed with farm tools held like weapons or with braided hair growing into branches of the cotton that they were forced to farm. The figures imply a strong connection between women, land and natural growth — and even as the source of life itself. For the opening of the Benton Museum and to accompany her exhibition there, Saar has created a new public artwork — a 12-foot-tall sculpture entitled “Imbue” depicting Yemaja (also known as Yemoja), a Yoruba goddess of the ocean, rivers and all waters. Though originally from West Africa, Yemaja is also worshipped widely in the Americas as the mother of all creatures, a protector of women and children and as a deity with cleansing and healing attributes. For Saar, the title reflects her own experience at the Claremont Colleges “being nourished and filled with knowledge,” while the choice of the goddess related to the location of the museum, close to the Wash, an area that once regularly flooded with runoff from heavy snowmelt from the mountains. “Now, this goddess seems particularly appropriate,” she muses. “Right now, with COVID and the racial unrest, we are all in need of cleansing and healing — a good hose down. We need a washing away and dispersal of bad vibes and bad news.”

Alison Saar next to "Imbue" (2020) outside the Benton Museum of Art | Ian Byers-Gamber, Courtesy of the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College, Claremont, CA
Alison Saar next to "Imbue" (2020) outside the Benton Museum of Art | Ian Byers-Gamber, Courtesy of the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College, Claremont, CA

The uncertainty about gallery opening dates has led the Benton Museum and the Armory Center to follow Saar’s example and take a dualistic or binary approach to presenting her work — part online (in the ether) and part in-gallery (earth). The Benton Museum’s exhibition will be installed from fall until summer 2021 and will open to the public later this fall or in early 2021, while the Armory Center currently plans to open its part of the exhibition in its galleries in January 2021. Meanwhile, for the fall, the Armory Center is developing interactive online programming for “Catfish Dreamin.’” What was originally an interactive traveling installation comprising a sculpture of a house and six-foot catfish mounted on a pickup truck will now involve Augmented Reality and geocaching using GPS. Despite these challenges, Leslie Ito, Executive Director of the Armory Center, explains that the organization is honored to show the “spiritual and poignant work of Alison Saar” and points out that “while the exhibition has been in the works for a few years, it is timely given the growing movement towards racial justice, as Saar's sculptures give voice to untold histories of struggle, survival and strength."

In conjunction with the Benton-Armory exhibition, the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College will host a traveling exhibition of Saar’s prints and sculptures from the Jordan Schnitzer Collection in Portland, Oregon. “Mirror Mirror: The Prints and Sculpture of Alison Saar from the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation” will be installed in the gallery until December 19, 2020 and will showcase her impressive body of printed works, encompassing monoprints, lithographs, serigraphs and woodcuts.

Click left and right to see more of Saar's works:

"Rise," Alison Saar, 2020 | Courtesy L.A. Louver, Venice, CA
"Rise," Alison Saar, 2020 | Courtesy L.A. Louver, Venice, CA
"Washtub Blues," Alison Saar, 2000, edition AP 5/8 | Courtesy of the Jordan Schnitzer Collection
"Washtub Blues," Alison Saar, 2000, edition AP 5/8 | Courtesy of the Jordan Schnitzer Collection
"Mirror, Mirror; Mulatta Seeking Inner Negress," edition 8/10, Alison Saar, 2014 | Jordan Schnitzer Collection
"Mirror, Mirror; Mulatta Seeking Inner Negress," edition 8/10, Alison Saar, 2014 | Jordan Schnitzer Collection
"Swing Low: Harriet Tubman Memorial" (2007) by Alison Saar, 2007 | Courtesy of Scripps College, Claremont, CA
"Swing Low: Harriet Tubman Memorial" (2007) by Alison Saar, 2007 | Courtesy of Scripps College, Claremont, CA
"High Cotton," Alison Saar, 2017 | Courtesy L.A. Louver, Venice, CA
"High Cotton," Alison Saar, 2017 | Courtesy L.A. Louver, Venice, CA

“It is an honor to present Alison’s art at Scripps, where she has a special place as an alumna and artist,” said gallery director Dr. Mary MacNaughton. Although the Williamson Gallery will not immediately be open to the public, MacNaughton hopes that visitors will be able to view the prints and sculptures from the Jordan Schnitzer Collection in the college gallery at some point before the exhibition closes in December. Meanwhile, a video of Saar touring the exhibition will be available soon for view on the Williamson Gallery website and an online Q&A with the artist will be posted on the Scripps College website as part of its Scripps Presents programming from September 8.

Whether or not galleries open this fall, we can be sure to be seeing more of the work of Alison Saar this year. Pomona College has published a beautiful catalog of the exhibition in September, which, as Saar says with good humor, “will provide evidence that the exhibition actually happened!” Her monumental figure “Imbue” has been installed at the Benton Museum and can be now be viewed — a perfect complement to Saar’s smaller bronze sculpture, “Swing Low: Harriet Tubman Memorial” (2007), which is on display outside the Williamson Gallery at Scripps College. The latter work is one of Saar’s sculptural tributes to Tubman, who dedicated her life to freeing slaves in the American South with the Underground Railroad. Both of these sculptures of Black women by one of the nation’s most important contemporary artists are powerful and permanent reminders of the work that still needs to be done in this country’s journey towards true racial and gender equality.

September 8, 12nn, Scripps celebrates Alison Saar in a talk with Assistant Professor of Book Arts Tia Blassingame. RSVP for free here.

Top Image: An image of Alison Saar's "Swing Low: Harriet Tubman Memorial" in Harlem at night | Jon Mannion/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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