The Shaman’s Bride Lifts Her Veil: Lezley Saar’s A Conjuring of Conjurors
In the magical exhibition, A Conjuring of Conjurors, artist Lezley Saar herself becomes the master shaman as she explores the role of mysticism, spiritualism and religious rituals in the human quest for safety, survival and certainty. Known for her earlier works that examine those who dwell in the interstices of identity, Saar here creates fantastically invented narratives of soothsayers and seers who use amulets, bones and tinctures to fix what is broken, find what is lost, or cure all manner of maladies.
Theatrically staged, Saar creates grand, large-scale figures which, though mute and faceless, paradoxically evoke both Nick Cave’s sound suits and Sue Wong’s feathered and beaded gowns, and are accompanied by poetic wall text that read like short stories. One such figure, entitled Olphida, the abandoned bride, finds books in broken branches, sermons in stones, rituals in roots, and sagas in silent seas (2019), is a tantalizingly bereft monochromatic brew of vintage fabrics, laces, crocheted bags, and patinaed bottles. Like all of these tall, free-standing figures, they look glamorous until one comes closer and sees the remnants of cloth once beautiful but now tattered. Faceless Olphida, possibly deranged by sadness, has her head with its beige velutinous hair hanging down in sorrow. At her feet are broken bones, bleached coral and other detritus reiterating her sad fate. There is a torn, abject photograph of a young girl at her first communion, in white dress and veil, being groomed, Saar, here, setting the scene for eventual heartbreak and lifelong melancholia. And though everything in this scene seems dried up or held in abeyance, a sprouting amaryllis bulb suggests that all, we would hope, is not lost.
Olphidia is the solitary free-standing figure in the small gallery that holds Saar’s exquisite monochromatic paper collages on photographs. All set in the middle to late nineteenth century, when photography was just beginning and photographers replaced the itinerant portrait painters, these female images all share certain characteristics. In the festive, Let’s just stay in keeping with the drenched aspects of the day (2018), moon shaped vignettes — each like a snow globe with its own encased world — are affixed to a larger Victorian photograph of a beautiful, finely attired woman. The sailing ship affixed nattily to her head, like a Queen Elizabeth hat, is the suggested cause of the aforementioned drenching. At a time when women were still restricted by corsets, long dresses, and male dominance, Saar extends their world by adding these circular images filled with exotic landscapes. So skillfully are they added that edges disappear and bleed into the figure, expertly becoming part of the body itself. Perhaps these worlds reflect inner hopes or dreams of freedom, travel or escape from drudgery.
Eyes abound in the gripping, slightly sci-fi, somewhat cheekily entitled A redemption that smells of mirrors (2019), as they circle around a face as would the planets around the sun, yet these eyes connote a kind-of wariness, scrutiny or watchfulness. Saar’s craftsmanship is impeccable, and the hand-cut collaged circles are so skillfully attached that the outline of the face and jaw is maintained, making edges dissolve. Over the central figure’s actual eyes, like a pair of occultist sunglasses, are negatives that allude to readings on a Richter scale. Another circle atop the left hemisphere of the head, where language resides, is the negative of an EKG or some other medical test. Since electricity wasn’t really invented until 1879, these images mediate between the past, present and future as the female, in her ever-state of being, is situated between two worlds: between the actual and the invented, between the known and unknowable, between the inner and the outer.
Saar’s herself is bi-racial, and in this body of work she seamlessly blends European, African and Caribbean religious rituals, while her titles reference the rich tapestry of Eastern European, Greek, Pagan myths and fables. And though each piece in this exhibition feels uniquely singular, i.e., able to stand entirely on its own, Saar nevertheless situates groupings of her “characters” so that they converse with one another in this world as well as that which is less manifestly, less tangibly below. Each grouping includes a free-standing conjuror — a wall banner piece and a framed painting on fabric, and all are compellingly, and all-the-more impactfully, larger than life.
One poignant group includes an elegant and dignified figure clad in black velvet while draped in objects, in a contextual sense, ominously black, such as a vintage-beaded black purse, a hand mirror, a hanging cross, an skeletal key, a bottle to gourd a magical tincture, a small book for prayers or, more apt to this piece, spells. Titled Mourna, the piece is described lyrically by Saar this way; “Mourna is the mother of the deceased, whom she keeps in the dark depths of the earth. She protects all their secrets and memories, swaying to faint music, making the ground slippery with her tears.”
Next to Mourna is the banner described as Clotille admitted him into her room, which was gloomy and dark with pictures of the saints pinned up on the walls, and black candles burning. The floorboards made a creaky sound as they walked toward the window (2019), and the small portrait entitled Lefu took some gris-gris composed of graveyard dirt, snakeskin and salt, placed it inside a dried pig’s bladder, and buried it under his nemesis porch which eventually drove the man mad, (2018). These three works are redolent of black magic, with its incantations and spells, and Santeria (The Way of the Saints) with its animal sacrifice, the undead and Roman Catholic prayers. One can almost smell the incense, sage and candle wax and hear faint drumming. Saar sets the stage with these eloquent but very specific references. Her banners are a nod to Haitian Vodou flags and banners that are used in ceremonies by priests.
Saar’s startlingly original banners reference windows (a nod, perhaps, to one world bridging into the next), with their curtain rods, their tassel tie-backs and the diaphanous fabric often covering the painted face like a scrim. Clotille is peering impassively from the right edge as if it were a window, framed by the black, delicately embellished netting that also functions as a mourning veil. It is a solemn and spare work.
The portrait entitled Lefu, painted on black patterned paisley-like fabric, has the female protagonist half covered in signs and symbols. A lemon, still attached to a twig with green leaves, is draped around her right ear. Lemons, it is told, were used by witches who stuck colored pins into their skins to bring a much-coveted sense of luck, or were sometimes paired with chiles to be hung outside the door to scare away bad spirits! A dead bird, a bone, a closed, exotic purple flower, all circle Lefu’s head. A red coral-like shape, like rivers of blood or vines of veins, connects the left hemisphere to the right — sort of like the Corpus Callosum. Inside her brain, a monochromatic, foggy, moonlit landscape, framed by bare trees, is redolent of eerie Southern landscapes. She is trance-like, communicating all-the-while with the spirit world. The expertly carved Victorian wooden frame enclosing the painting echoes the swirling shapes of the dark background.
In other works, bats, mottled dinosaur eggs and snakes appear all-inviting, not just to our gaze but to multiple interpretations depending on who is doing the viewing, their religious touchstones, their understanding of iconic symbols. Symbols of evil, for instance, for one steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition, are seen as symbols of wisdom in other non-Christian religions. The snake, one of the more profound symbols in all of mythology, is but one example of this narrative contrast and epic cultural divide.
Saar presents a rich, tangled tapestry of deeply metaphorical paintings and sculptures. Her authentic exploration of hybrid religions and the multiple identities of human beings, makes this stunning, not-to-be missed show a rare but poignant reminder of our shared humanity.