By Ricky Amadour
Coinciding with the exhibition, award-winning author Myriam J. A. Chancy was invited by Saar for a reading and conversation. Chancy’s recent novel, What Storm, What Thunder, provides accounts from multiple narrative voices of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that jolted Port-au-Prince, Haiti on January 12, 2010. Characters with varying sociological perspectives, affected by the disaster, each contribute a unique vantage point through gender, sexuality, and age. The novel is distinct as an act of remembrance and its passages humanize survivors of the earthquake.
My interview with Alison Saar centers on the history of African diasporic religions including Santería in Cuba, Candomblé in Brazil, and Voodoo in Haiti. Included in the exhibition are works she created that address the tethered history of Yoruba culture brought over from the transatlantic slave trade, as well as excerpts from Greek mythology. Moreover, Saar provides further context to her time in Roswell, New Mexico, her upbringing in Los Angeles, and the pivotal people in her life and work.
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RICKY AMADOUR: I would like to start this interview by mentioning Dr. Samella Lewis, who wrote African American Art and Artists in 1978 — which is a history of African American art since the colonial era. Dr. Lewis’s work created the framework for African American artists to be understood as a part of the canon of art history. How did your studies with Dr. Lewis influence your practice?
ALISON SAAR: Dr. Samella Lewis was a really good friend of my mother’s [Betye Saar]. Her gallery was one of the first galleries that my mother had a solo exhibition at. So we knew her as a family friend. When I got out of high school, I was kind of neither here nor there, and she said, well, why don’t you apply to Scripps College? I don’t think I would have applied otherwise, and it was phenomenal working with her.
What was interesting about her two volumes of African American contemporary artists was that up until that point Black artists from the West Coast hadn’t had that much exposure. And so it was really great for artists like John Outterbridge, David Hammons, Maren Hassinger, and my mother. Most people know of Samella as a Black art historian, but what they don’t really know is that she is a phenomenal artist herself. She has some fantastic pieces at the Black American Portraits show on at LACMA. She was also a Chinese Fulbright Scholar and speaks three Chinese languages. Samella has been a massive influence and mentor for me.
AMADOUR: Her printmaking works are profound. What are the Latin American influences on your work? And also, as Artist-in-Residence at the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art in Roswell, New Mexico, did your time there prompt interests in American Indian and Mexican art?
SAAR: I wouldn’t say Los Angeles is a border town, but the cultural influences from Latin America come all the way up here. When we were young, we would drop down every once in a while to Mexico. Los Angeles is a culturally rich place to grow up, and my friends in school were of Mexican, South and Central American heritage. We had books in our house on Mayan, Incan, and contemporary craft movements throughout Mexico. And then, of course, the modernist painters were a big influence on my work — as well as Frida Kahlo, Tina Modotti, and other folks along those lines. If they weren’t Mexican, per se, they were living in Mexico and were part of that movement. And Roswell — Roswell is such a weird place…
AMADOUR: Yes, aliens!
SAAR: It’s really odd, but the nature is really beautiful. We would drive through White Sands National Park and go down to El Paso. I was really intrigued by indigenous materials traditionally used in the Southwest, like turquoise and abalone. I created a couple of sculptures that analyze the crossover of snake dancing — and representations of snakes in Southwest American indigenous people’s art — along with depictions of snakes in Africa. There’s one piece I made at Roswell of a snake charmer. He was kind of a shaman character who has a hypnotized snake in his mouth. There’s this kind of intersection and overlap of snakes and rivers as well. What’s your interest in snakes?
AMADOUR: My mother is Colombian and my father is from Mexico City, so my association with snakes has always been with the Mexican flag. The eagle eats the snake over the lake — it’s an Aztec legend.
SAAR: Well, we grew up in Laurel Canyon, and I also live there now. I remember a snake on our front porch that I brought into the house and it promptly escaped somewhere, and my mother was all distraught. Then I had another snake escape in my house here while we were babysitting a classmate. So we have this theory that there’s probably a twenty-foot python underneath our house at the moment.
AMADOUR: There are also infinite representations of snakes in literature, even in children’s literature like in The Little Prince, for instance, where the anaconda swallows an elephant. Do you know what I’m talking about?
SAAR: I love that picture. It’s one of my favorites.
AMADOUR: Within the scope of indigenous folklore and practices, I was examining your work and thinking about Santería — the fusion of Catholic practices and African folk beliefs in Cuba. Santeríans believe that one God created the universe and that the world is cared for by the Orishas, who represent various forms of nature and human characteristics. Yemaya, whom you’ve made sculptures of, is the Orisha of the sea or also in Yoruba tradition, the goddess of the sea. Enslaved Africans disguised their gods through Catholic iconography in order to continue practicing their religions. What are your thoughts on the use of these figures?
SAAR: I think there are so many examples, even here in the states, of African Yoruba and Br’er traditions that were brought over through the slave trade. So while you have the syncretism of the Catholic saints in Haitian Voodoo and Santería — you also get things like river baptisms, which are not necessarily a Black thing, but it had a different meaning to the Black folks then to the White folks. It also coincides with this idea of purification through water. There are examples all over the Americas, wherever the enslaved were brought in. [Enslaved people] were able to maintain and persist their religious practices under the masquerade of Catholic or Christian practices. This can also be said in terms of their artistic abilities which included quilt making, basket weaving, and iron working — I don’t think folks knew these were carried over from the motherland.
In terms of the the Fon from Dahomey and their iron working community [which is now part of Benin and Togo] and stuff like that. There are also the quilts by Harriet Powers — these incredible works that look so much like the quilts from Dahomey. They are these kind of pictogram sort of quilts that tell multiple stories. I think it’s evident everywhere. You have to scrutinize and take a closer look. That’s kind of the way they had to function if they were going to survive and not just completely kowtow. [Enslaved people] would literally place masks over the saints’ faces or masks on the Orishas to continue their belief system.
AMADOUR: Would you say there is more recognition of these practices today?
SAAR: I think there’s more recognition now in terms of origin. In Black cuisine there are components of spirituality and beliefs in the food that we eat. Large communities in the United States, aside from Louisiana’s history with Voodoo, are in New York and California. Out near my studio there are shrines to Elegua all over the place. You just have to know what you’re looking for and how to recognize it. They’re there. For instance, Our Lady of Guadalupe is everywhere and also has ties to wider beliefs — it’s definitely present.
AMADOUR: In a way, it’s also a type of coding — and kind of like a language of coding through social movements and religious identities — especially in autochthonous communities. I want to continue by learning more about your research into Brazilian and South American transatlantic spirits.
SAAR: I was introduced to the study of looking at Orishas and Loas in the Americas by Robert Farris Thompson. He’s so incredible. It was such a great loss [Farris passed away on November 29, 2021] because he influenced so many people.
AMADOUR: I was going to bring him up a little bit later! Flash of the Sprit, right?
SAAR: Right. And then he has all these other amazing books, like Face of the Gods. And, you know, they’re just like my Bibles. When he passed, I was searching madly for my original copy of Flash of the Spirit — the pages are all falling out and it’s all dog-eared and everything. It’s been a resource for all of us. I had been making these pieces based on water deities and not really recognizing what my attraction was to that really early on. He helped me connect the dots in terms of Yemaya and Elegua — all these figures have been part of my work. Growing up in Laurel Canyon, I’m a real nature girl, so I’ve always kind of turned to nature first. However, all of these embodied things beyond my imagination and are connected to a global movement and understanding of the world. That was really exciting for me.
AMADOUR: It was a lovely time attending the first public event that L.A. Louver has put on in over two years. That’s insane.
SAAR: We squeezed it in there really quickly before the holidays.
AMADOUR: I want to speak about Myriam J. A. Chancy and her novel What Storm, What Thunder, which tells the story of the earthquake in Haiti through the perspective of ten characters whose experience has been mitigated by identity markers. Myriam also spoke about artist Leroy Clark and on how the novel was part of a grieving process for her. The show you curated at L.A. Louver, SeenUNseen, was part of a grieving process for you as well. How and why did you decide to put together the event?
SAAR: Two or three years ago we were part of a symposium about Haitian influences, contemporary writers, and artists in the Americas. She read a small snippet of one the chapters that she read with us. And it just talked about these spirits that were in the room with her and how they were playing around and tickling her. So she set out a trap for them to play with bowls of water — when I heard that it broke my heart and it was just so amazing. It’s an incredible passage and I was literally haunted by it for years. So I thought of that one passage and I thought of her. SeenUNseen is about the prevalence of spirit, and how it is very much part of our everyday lives — for those of us who believe, embrace, and are open to that possibility.
AMADOUR: The topic of spirituality has been taboo and unspoken about within the art world.
SAAR: For a while, work was very cerebral and less emotional. I wouldn’t say it was condemned, but people would say to me, “maybe you don’t want to talk about all that Hoodoo stuff.” And I just thought — this is what the work is about. Early on I didn’t necessarily put a name to it and that [my art] was directly responding to my connections to Orishas. And then I decided, well, I’m just going to put it out there. But I think, you know, the work was always about those things. And I think people were always able to connect with their own understanding of African diasporic spiritual communities.
There have been several shows as of late about spiritualism and witchcraft. Artists from the past like Hilma Af Klint are being rediscovered. The work has always been connected to this greater spirit, and not necessarily indigenous spirits like we’re discussing. But I think there’s an opening-up to these ideas and maybe even a thirst or hunger for stuff that’s not based on how screwed up the world is — but something deeper and more loving.
© Alison Saar. Courtesy of L.A. Louver, Venice, CA.
AMADOUR: In SeenUNseen, your works were placed together in the same room. The Beckoning (2021) portrays a life-sized female figure surrounded by mirrors used to attract wandering spirits — with reference to Robert Farris Thompson. Hecate (2021) is a painting of the female figure on the wall. Why did you pair these works?
SAAR: Really they’re the same piece and the same figure. I knew that she was someone leading spirits to the next world or to the next realm. Specifically helping the lost in finding their ways. Hecate is mostly known as being a witch, but she is also the figure that led Demeter to find Persephone in the underworld. She guided Demeter to find her daughter who was abducted into the underworld and held the same tools including the rope, string, and lights. I was really interested in her and then found that her counterpart would be Oya in Candomblé in Brazil and Santería.
The Catholic version is Saint Brigid, the Patron Saint for women and women’s reproductive systems. I’m especially interested in the fact that Saint Brigid came out of Ireland, which is so late to come to recognize [women’s reproductive rights]. So Hecate (2021) is really a powerful female figure interested in female medicine as well as a woman who helps us find our way through the underworld and into the next — they’re basically a mirror of each other. We put her in that room because she is the mirror of the sculpture and because there were all these other mirrors involved.
AMADOUR: I just think that’s really beautiful. I also wanted to discuss your thoughts on the other artists in the show, and why you chose those artists in specific.
SAAR: When the gallery asked me to curate the show, what I really wanted to do is to show the artists that I love. The one thing that many of them have in common is that they are creating paintings of things that aren’t necessarily part of our material world. It’s specifically portraiture of communities that have long been excluded and peoples that have been excluded from museums and Western subjectivities. I’m also interested in the notion of painting what most people wouldn’t consider to be there at all. They’re basically painting portraits or creating something of things that are unseen and things that are present at all times as spirits.
In the exhibition, you also have a generational range. There are older artists, mid-career artists, and then some very young artists. JOJO ABOT and Ricardo Vicente Jose Ruiz are really young. When everyone’s works were in the room, we realized there were even more connections to be made. There’s this connection with thread and binding between Keisha Scarville, Arthur Simms, and Rina Banerjee. Julia Haft-Candell’s ceramics also related to Vanessa German’s works.
Putting all these pieces together, they were all like kin. We were laughing because we said, “as soon as the gallery lights go out, that’s when the party starts in this room.” Kimberly Davis, one of the directors of the gallery, has a fantastic understanding and sensibility. So I let her install the show and walked in and felt that nothing needed to be changed — I thought it was just perfect. When they began laying pieces out, they realized, “this piece is talking to this piece.” Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle’s black and white pieces were talking to Kathy Grove and Keisha’s black and white pieces. And so they all had cross currents between them.
AMADOUR: In a way it’s channeling?
SAAR: Right. We were really excited that all the artists were open to being in the show and able to synthesize all these amazing pieces.
AMADOUR: At Art Basel in Miami last December, I made it to the ICA Miami to see your mother’s show [Betye Saar: Serious Moonlight]. There was an alter to leave behind mementos. I contributed a New York metro card and my dear friend Marion Denné left her Belgian school ID. Is there an unseen convergence between the two shows?
SAAR: I definitely cannot deny the influence of my mother and all of all of the amazing work she’s done. I think my initial interest in binding and tying things up was working as her studio assistant — working on pieces like Spirit Catcher (1977). I learned so much from both of my parents. My father was an art conservator and a ceramicist. Working with him, doing our conservation, I learned several techniques. My work kind of falls between the two of them because he had a very Western training and my interest in the figure comes from a Western canon. While my mother’s work bridges meaning and ideas tied to the occult, and African art carried over from African diasporic traditions.
AMADOUR: To sum it up, what is your hope for the future and for artists embracing spiritual realms?
SAAR: I’m always suspicious as to what mischief the art world is up to and the reasoning behind certain works that are embraced. I’ve seen waves where black, brown, and artists of color have been embraced only to be ignored for a couple of decades and then get caught up in it again. Unfortunately I think a lot of it is money-driven and market-driven. And I hope that buyers are not just looking at art and buying art in hopes of selling it, but actually looking, taking it in, and really understanding what’s behind it. And so my hope for the future is that this isn’t all just a fad and a phase, and that the doors have finally been opened to artists of color to be part of the conversation. It’s more about humanity, and I hope that recognition leads others to be more compassionate.
Ricky Amadour is an interdisciplinary artist based in Los Angeles and New York City. Amadour investigates landscape, architectural forms, and our relationship as humans to built and natural environments. They received dual BA degrees in studio art and art history from the UCLA School of Arts and Architecture in 2018. For more information visit: www.amadour.com