High Museum of Art
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High Museum of Art

Black and white photograph of bell hooks seated in profile.
Photograph by Karjean Levine / Getty

Remembering bell hooks: Seeing Art through an Intersectional Lens

As we reflect on the passing of hooks, let’s look back at a conversation between hooks and artist Alison Saar that deals with Black art, ritual, and expression in the face of pain.

By Eva Berlin, Digital Content Specialist, High Museum of Art

Over the past week, we have been mourning the loss of bell hooks — revolutionary writer, professor, feminist, and activist. In this moment of reflecting on hooks’s legacy, it’s a meaningful opportunity to revisit (or newly discover) her ideas on topics like art, feminism, love, and Black liberation.

In her 1995 book Art on My Mind: Visual Politics, hooks holds interviews with various Black artists, including Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Emma Amos, and Margo Humphrey. She also speaks with Alison Saar, an artist represented in the High’s collection. Here is an excerpt of their conversation, followed by a look at an artwork by Saar:

bh: [. . .] The spirit of playfulness that I see in you as a person, the way you like to mix the delightful with the deadly serious, is there in your work. The spirit of play in folk art or primitive art is so rarely talked about as ritualistic, as evoking a vision of life, an ontology, that we can use to apprehend reality. I see that ritual play in specific figures you have created, like The Tobacco Demon or The Cotton Demon, where on the one hand, there is playfulness, yet these figures are constructed to embody evil, everything we might dread.

AS: I think I have to do that, mix the sacred and the profane in my work; it’s a process of exorcism. If I didn’t do it in the work, I’d just jump off a cliff. These are constructive ways of facing tragic, painful experiences. And that’s how the slaves survived all that pain — through creating, by making music, dance, poetry. That’s how, you know, we survive in Haiti, in Mexico. You just somehow turn it around; you’re up against death, then you make death this buffoon, this trickster, and that’s how you deal with what you face, and that’s how you survive it, because otherwise you’d just lay down and die.

bh: I remembered when I first learned in high school about carnival in other cultures. We did not learn its deeper meaning, about “eating of the flesh,” those layered metaphysical dimensions, the issues of life and death that are a part of carnival. Instead, we were taught to think of carnival as primitive play. For too long in this culture we have had to witness African art and African American art talked about in ways that deny there is something happening in the work that is deep — not obvious — that what you see on the surface may be a smiling face, but that smiling face may be tilted in a manner that speaks to suffering, that changes the meaning of that smile. That willingness to critically engage art by black folks in all its profundity is still very difficult in a culture of domination where people do not learn to look beneath the surface.

AS: [. . .] My work explores the tension between the wildness within, the primitive, and the rational animal. There is that dual quality within all of us. And both are really important aspects of who we are.

Mixed-media sculpture by Alison Saar of a male figure with a stiff pose, wearing a suit made of tobacco leaves, holding a scythe and a chain.
Alison Saar (American, born 1956), Tobacco Demon, 1993, ceiling tin, found objects, and shellac on wood.

Much of bell hooks’s work deals with the concept of intersectionality and the complexity of human experience. This work in the High’s collection by Alison Saar is similarly complex as it deals with the intersections of capitalism, slavery, racism, gender, class, and the degradation of the earth.

Tobacco Demon is based on the character of Baron Samedi, the ruler of zombies in Haitian Voudoun folklore. This demonic figure, wearing a suit made of tobacco leaves and holding a scythe and chain, is an embodiment of the evils behind systems of oppression — specifically the painful history of the institution of slavery, which exploited Black lives and the land in the pursuit of wealth and power.

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