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Alison Saar

Interview conducted by Kiki Glah, Scripps College '18


With various different formats of presenting art, what drew you to create artist books? How do you think the format of an artist's book best explores/examines race and identity?

I briefly explored the format of the artists books in the 1980's but I have only recently began making books as a means to collaborate with writers and poets and working with printmaking studios. While my sculpture also addresses issues of race and identity I feel what the book offers is the opportunity to create affordable editions making the work more accessible. 

How would you like your audience to interact with your works?

What is wonderful about the book format is that it invites an intimacy with the viewer. The process of the reveal of the page and the textures of the pages also enhances the sensory experience of the work.

What do you feel are the three most important themes/messages in your body of work?

Identity, empowerment and spirit

How are these central themes/messages of your work relevant to contemporary issues?

I feel that in the current toxic political climate, not only in the US bout around the world, where bigotry is on the rise, it is yet again necessary to address these issues.

What central life experiences have you drawn on to create your work, and do you think these experiences are more universal or personal?

I grew up during the civil right struggle. Although we did not live in Watts, the riots had a profound impact on our family. Since the 60's, we have seen many victories large and small, but I now see many of those gains being threatened and I take heart to see a new generation taking up the mantle and resuming the fight.

When creating this project, what difficulties did you encounter when you were working to marry your prints with the poetry of Evie Shockley?

Both Evie and I established from the beginning that neither of us were interested in illustrating each other's contribution.  I initially had a conversation with her regarding the body of work I had made for my Breach exhibition and expressed in interest in a very loose collaboration.  I had been working on the images in the book independent of her words just as she worked on the poem with out seeing my images.

The prints that you made often display the women in the nude; to what extent do you feel that the female form ties into their identity?

Since much of my work addresses issues of female identity and often how as women we are seen as female bodies first, I sometimes depict my figure unclothed and exposed as to take ownership of our bodies and to defy the gaze.

In Shockley’s poetry there is a couple references to blue breasts (i. a deity’s history: “...whose bare blue breasts hint at the source of their power…” iii. migrant’s prayer: “ that your spray swirling, stinging, in the bitter wind, your blue bosom...”). Can you elaborate on the significance or meaning of blue breasts in your own terms? 

I have a strong attraction to the color blue, more specifically indigo and ultramarine blue in that the color has close ties with African and African American culture, indigo being a dying tradition in Africa and the indigo plant being a slave crop grow in the Americas.   I also use the color blue for my figures often alluding to the Blues traditions, to depict a blue black skin tone and sometimes, as in the case of the piece Bain Froid which depicts a woman bathing in a cold water washtub, to refer to turning blue.  Which I believe is what Evie is speaking of when Mami Wata blue breast turning from snow to water.

Do you feel that in artist books it is important to create a balance between visuals and text? Why or why not? And do you feel that your work has created this balance?

I am interested in the visual and the text sharing a space and having a balance.  I think because we are not a visually literate culture I feel often the written word has more presence that the image and so I try to have the viewer invest in trying to read the words.  I also felt that should the text be too subtle, as in the case of Mami Wata, it was important to have the text more clearly represented in the colophon.  

After reading and viewing the work I found that it both expresses a sense of being trapped in, yet still liberated by, society’s constructed identity for black women as a kind of “demon-goddess”; sexual, exotic, dangerous etc. Do you feel that your prints exhibit a greater sense of being trapped or of being liberated? Or have you found a sense of balance between the two?

I feel that in all my work, sculpture, painting and prints and drawings, my women simultaneously testify to their history of inequity and to their strength and perseverance 

How do you feel that your own personal struggle with identity has influenced the works that you produced for this project?

I feel that this project has less to do with identity as to the relationship between African Americans living next to rivers and near flood planes and the African diaspora deity, Mami Wata