Alison Saar likes to make sculptures of strong Black women standing their ground: broad shoulders, wide stance, unmovable in their convictions. She made a bronze monument of Harriet Tubman that presides over a traffic island at 122nd Street in Harlem. She created a small army of enslaved girls turned warriors, inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s character Topsy, for a major gallery show in Los Angeles. And now Ms. Saar, 64, has a new public sculpture on the Pomona College campus, commissioned by the Benton Museum of Art there: “Imbue,” a 12-foot-tall bronze evoking the Yoruba goddess Yemoja.
“Imbue” accompanies her biggest museum survey yet, “Of Aether and Earthe,” which will be held in two venues: the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, which plans to open its section in January; and the Benton, in Claremont, Calif., where her show is installed and ready to open when the state’s coronavirus guidelines allow. Below are edited excerpts from a conversation with the artist about her new show and ongoing obsessions.
Your new sculpture for Pomona shows Yemoja, the Yoruba goddess associated with childbirth and rivers, carrying a stack of heavy pails on her head. What does Yemoja represent to you?
Yemoja crops up in my work a lot. I first discovered her when I was living in New York in the 1990s, trying to grapple with being a young mother and having a career — it felt like a real balancing act. I did a piece then called “Cool Maman,” who is balancing actual pots and pans on her head, all white enamelware. I see Yemoja as not only helping me in terms of patience and balance and child rearing but also as a watery, life-giving spirit who nourishes my creative process.
For your “Topsy Turvy” show in 2018 at L.A. Louver, you turned Topsy, the enslaved character from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” into these fierce warrior girls. You even did a mixtape for the show, “Angry Songs for Angry Times.” How would you describe the source of your anger, and was it tricky for you to channel or unleash it?
I’ve always wanted my work not to just be angry but point toward some resolution or express some optimism. But it’s been harder and harder to come up with something positive. After Obama was elected, we started seeing these horrible things bubbling up on social media — about growing watermelons at the White House or casting him and Michelle as monkeys.
Since then, with Trump and the white supremacists, things have been getting even darker and more frightening. In “Topsy Turvy,” the last piece was “Jubilee,” a figure cutting her hair off and dancing, removing the social shackles and all the pain we are carrying around. But it’s still a painful piece in my eyes. I basically stopped worrying about putting out a positive message anymore; I felt that it was OK to express being furious.
These figures are defiant but tender; they are beautiful warriors. Do you think about that contradiction?
I think it’s always about a balance, and that comes back to the Yemoja character, balancing so much on her head. A lot of my life has been a balancing act between anger and a kind of serenity, and that’s also reflected in my process. I start by thinking about things, dreaming about things, but the actual work involves chain saws and hammers and knives and blades and a lot of bandages — I get cut a lot. The physical grappling with materials is very aggressive.
You have a history of using scavenged materials, whether painting on seed sacks or sculpting with ceiling tin. When did you discover ceiling tin as a material, and what does it give you that you couldn’t get from more traditional mediums like stone or wood?
When I moved to New York from Los Angeles in the ’80s, I had a job at the Studio Museum of Harlem, working as a sort of registrar before I became an artist in residence there. Walking to the museum, I saw all of this amazing ceiling tin out on the curb from people renovating townhouses. I would drag it into my studio. On the one hand, it covered up imperfections in the wood sculpture underneath — I was using wood from the dumpster that had holes and cracks. But it also created a kind of skin or armor. I loved the pattern because it reminded me of African scarification, which in some ways is an external biographer, telling us who you are married to or what group you belong to.
Your Benton show includes a disturbing sculpture, “Conked,” where a woman swallows her own long hair, made of wire. I take it the title refers to the old-school hair straightening process?
Conking is a type of hair processing where a lot of really toxic ingredients strip the hair of what makes it curl. Early on one of the ingredients was lye. By straightening her hair, this woman was eating the “lye” or “lie,” trying to separate herself from her African-American body, and that’s why I show her head separated from her body. I did a lot of severed heads at one point — I guess I’ve had anger in my work for a while.
Do you think it’s fair to say that a survey of your work is also a survey of things Black women do to their hair?
Yes [laughs]. I’m a little obsessed with hair. I think part of it is being biracial and very fair-skinned, to the point of being perceived as white; my hair is the one thing that feels like a real connection to my African-American ancestry. And much of my young life was spent going with my mother to salons and going through these hilarious, hair-straightening rituals with my cousins in the kitchen.
You recently made a benefit print honoring Black Lives Matter, titled “Rise,” which shows a woman making a power fist. Was there a particular source for your image?
I looked at a lot of images of women from the Black Panther movement with their Afros and fists raised and then contemporized the hairstyle to say we’re still fighting the same battle. I didn’t want it to be one woman. I love Angela Davis, but there are a lot of other women that don’t get recognized, and I’m paying tribute to them all. Some people see the Black Panthers as militant and frightening. To me, the women were very much involved in education, free food, taking care of the elderly, these incredible community practices that are always being erased by the image of the guy holding the rifles.
Printmaking is one of the most populist art forms, connected historically to ideas of accessibility and, at times, democracy. Do you see printmaking as a political tool?
I’ve never really thought of my printmaking as political but very much about it being populist, accessible and affordable. I love the history of broadsides where people would print out a poem and plaster the city with them, and I’ve done a couple with poets.
You come from a family of artists. Your mother is Betye Saar. Your father, Richard Saar, was a conservator and ceramist. Your sister Lezley Saar is an artist. Did you ever consider doing anything else for a living?
I really wanted after high school to get out from under the shadow of my mother’s reputation. So when I was studying at Scripps, I worked with Dr. Samella Lewis and was looking to be an art historian specializing in the African diaspora and non-Western culture. I did a dual major: fine arts and art history. I just think, at the end of it, I felt I was better suited to making art than writing about it. It was more gratifying. It was something I had been trained to do all my life.