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Topsy Turvy: ASU Art Museum exhibition explores conflicting identities

January 04, 2002

TEMPE, Ariz. – African legends, childhood myths, and racial and gender stereotypes are explored in the exhibition,Topsy Turvy: Sculpture by Alison Saar, opening at ASU Art Museum on Feb. 2 and running through May 5. A free, public reception attended by the artist will launch the exhibition from 7-9 p.m. on Feb. 1.

Topsy Turvy presents 10 works from the past decade by sculptor Alison Saar. Saar creates monumental figures from carved wood and found objects that are inspired by personal experiences, African and African American myths and legends, and racial stereotypes.

Senior curator at the ASU Art Museum, Heather Lineberry, said that Saar’s works are both figurative and narrative, exploring issues of identity, and of ethnic and racial heritage.
“Her works are at once poignant explorations of her personal experiences and bold, powerful figures that confront the viewer’s perceptions,” Lineberry said.

Saar’s sculptures often incorporate weathered and aged found materials that enhance the surfaces and masses of the figures. This use of diverse materials with prior histories references the artist’s exploration and assimilation of various artistic traditions and personal identities. Her style draws upon African and Haitian sculpture and art forms for inspiration, while her work explores the conflict of being both black and white, African and European.

Many of Saar’s sculptures explore the conflict and identity of African-American women. Yet the struggle to accept oneself, and the multiple roles fulfilled by women, are not limited to one race and as such, Saar says her work crosses boundaries to become universal in its experience and messages.

One piece in the exhibition, Chaos in the Kitchen, is a sculpture of a black woman with various objects caught in the thick, twisted wire that comprises her hair.

Saar said part of the inspiration for Chaos in the Kitchen came from a story that her mother (and many other mothers) told, of a little girl who wouldn’t brush her hair and so leaves and other items became tangled in her hair, followed by birds, then rats, who also took up residence there.

Yet the references in this piece go much deeper and are universal. Caught in the sculpture’s hair are the relics of a woman’s life and dreams. Scissors and fast cars, washtubs and the Eiffel Tower indicate the multiple roles and identities that belong to a woman during her lifetime.

Hair is a common theme and metaphor in Saar’s work. In Blonde Dreams, Saar uses the universal fixation women have with their hair and hair color to explore conflicts between her African and European heritage.

“It’s about instilling so much power in your hair that you think if you change your hair to be something Anglo, then you become part of that culture or society,” Saar said. “She’s hanging by her feet because she’s sacrificed herself to this idea.”

In Conked, a woman’s decapitated head lies on its side. The straightened, anglicized hair that flows from her head, into her mouth and out her neck represents the feeding to herself of an image that is not her true identity. As a result, her ancestral blood and identity is draining out of her.

Topsy Turvy: Sculpture by Alison Saar will open on Feb. 2 and run through May 5 at ASU Art Museum in the Nelson Fine Arts Center, corner Mill Ave. and 10th St., Tempe.

A free, public reception, attended by the artist, will be held from 7-9 p.m. on Feb. 1, in conjunction with the reception for Strange Fruit: New Paintings by Hung Liu. The Herberger College School of Music’s African Drum Ensemble will provide music at the reception. Refreshments will be served.

The exhibition and related programs are supported in part by Mikki and Stanley Weithorn; the Arizona Commission on the Arts, with funding from the State of Arizona and the National Endowment for the Arts; and the Friends of the ASU Art Museum.

The ASU Art Museum is a division of The Katherine K. Herberger College of Fine Arts at Arizona State University. For more information, please call (480) 965-2787 or

When You Go:
Location: ASU Art Museum, Nelson Fine Arts Center, corner Mill Avenue and 10th Street, Tempe.
Date &Time: Topsy Turvy: Sculpture by Alison Saar commences on Feb. 2 and runs through May 5.
A free, public reception, attended by the artist, will be held from 7-9 p.m. on Feb. 1, in conjunction with the reception for Strange Fruit: New Paintings by Hung Liu.
Parking: Free parking is available in ASU Art Museum-marked spaces at the south end of Tempe Center, located at the NE corner of Mill Ave. and 10th St. Visitors using museum spaces must sign in at the front desk in the lobby.
Phone: (480) 965-2787
Cost: Free

Media Contact:
Jennifer Pringle