LEXINGTON, KY — In recent weeks, the humanitarian crisis following Hurricane Maria has centered on the lack of clean drinking water, leading to reports of Puerto Ricans drinking from Superfund sites out of desperation. Other major hurricanes, like Harvey, or Katrina before it, caused storm surges and epic rainfalls, drowning the cities, overwhelming wetlands and levees, and leaving a sea where once there had been land. In all of these crises, water’s destructive power feels almost hypocritical or traitorous, as if something so essential to all life had broken a promise to sustain us and instead turned into our destructor.
This betrayal is at the center of Alison Saar’s exhibition Breach, on view at the University of Kentucky Art Museum. Breach focuses on the human toll of the Great Mississippi River flood of 1927. The flood resulted from a confluence of factors, including severe storms in the fall of 1926 and spring of 1927, large snowmelts and the flooding of various tributary rivers, which caused the breach of several levees; according to Smithsonian magazine, it “covered 27,000 square miles, land in seven states where about a million people lived,” displacing roughly 637,000 people and killing an estimated 250 to 1000 people.
The vast majority — by most estimates, nearly half a million — of the flood refugees were black men, women, and children. These citizens, who lost their livelihoods and homes, were subject to further oppression by government agencies during recovery efforts. In his catalogue essay, John M. Barry states that African American flood victims in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi were “penned up in refugee camps — called ‘concentration camps’ — patrolled by armed guards as if they were prisoners, [and] mistreated and cheated out of Red Cross supplies.” In addition, many black flood victims were “conscripted to work on shoring up the failing levees,” a move that breached the promise of the 13th Amendment, as black citizens were forced into slave labor simply because they lived in the flood’s path.
Breach calls attention to this history and to the persistence of environmental racism in several ways. The shores of the Mississippi and the promise of individual liberties are breached, both washed away as the river raged through the Jim Crow South in 1927. Among the exhibition’s two- and three-dimensional work, which illustrate the social impact of this flood in various media, is a pair of charcoal drawings on found linen seed-sacks depicting a naked man and woman carrying towering stacks of belongings and supplies over their heads, as they navigate the through the muddied water. The figures parallel each other in their positions, but their engagement with the flood (rendered with brown acrylic paint) is markedly different: The man stands in contrapposto, half-submerged in the water, resting his haul on his shoulders, and containing it precariously with his hands, while the woman stands on a wood palette with her belongings tightly configured and resting on a steamer trunk set directly on her head. She is poised as she pushes herself, with a long oar, skillfully through the water; the look on her face exudes deep stoicism as she undergoes her task.
The weight that rests upon her head — the symbolism of which is quite clear — seems almost impossible to balance, and yet the drawing mirrors the exhibition’s central sculptural work, an almost 13-foot-tall tableau of a life-sized woman, made from wood and ceiling tin, pushing herself along the river, with the same steamer trunk and domestic objects stacked high above her head. The oar she holds ends at an angle where it hits the floor; in Saar’s words, “the floor of the gallery becomes the water […] and so we are all in the water with her.”
Markings and patterns on the ceiling tin that covers the woman’s body resemble scars, similar to those captured in McPherson and Oliver’s 1863 photo “The Scourged Back,” of a formerly enslaved man identified only as “Gordon.” The reference makes clear that the wounds of environmental racism are intertwined with the legacy of slavery and white supremacy in this country. At the same time the striations that adorn her body resemble veins and muscle fiber, exuding a sense of strength and vitality echoed in the calmness of her expression, as she maneuvers through the sea of floodwaters, determined and undeterred in her fight for survival.
The woman is a reminder of the strength and resilience of the black communities ravaged by the floods. Throughout the show, Saar references Jazz and the Blues — as in a series of 2015 paintings on found sugar sacks, “Black Bottom Stomp,” “Sluefoot Slide,” “Swampside Shag,” and “Muddywater Mambo,” which depict individual figures dancing while partially submerged in floodwaters — and the ability of singers and musicians to turn their struggles into resonant and meaningful art.
Yet while many of the works focus on refugees trying to build lives out of destruction, several others focus on the deadly aspects of water in disaster. For instance, the charcoal and chalk drawing “Acheron” (2016), named for one of the seven rivers of the Underworld in Greek mythology, features a black woman standing in water up to her navel, carrying a bowl over her head. Her white dress, transparent from the water, implies the vulnerability of flood victims. Her reflection is visible in the water, but distorted –– her face becomes mask-like and the parcel that rests on her head is transformed into a bowl with four skulls inside. The reflection suggest that the water is deadly, either because it obscures some treachery below, or because the water itself has turned toxic, poisoning her body as she tries to move to safety.
Saar also examines the threat of drowning. While almost all of the figures in Breach are immersed in water, the degree to which they are submerged varies widely. In some pieces, the water seems stagnant around the ankles, as in the 2014 woodcut “Backwater Blues,” in which a woman dips her broom in the water as if to sweep it away. In other works, like the drawing on linen and a “found trunk drawer,” “Silted Brow” (2016), Saar depicts a woman who has fully succumbed to drowning, her body laying flat on the silted bottom of this newly formed lake, her head almost severed from her neck, eyes staring vacantly at the viewer, as two catfish approach her corpse.
By illustrating the impact that this historical tragedy had on Southern black communities, Alison Saar’s Breach exposes a neglected and neglectful history and its resonance with the environmental racism that is still so prominent in our society. From natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Maria and the Great Mississippi Flood, to pollution and water contamination caused by corporations and governments, people of color continue to suffer physical and emotional harm due to environmental racism. From racist housing policies that disproportionately force communities of color to live in environmentally toxic or vulnerable regions to the mismanagement of disaster resources to limit access for black and brown people, the environment has been conscripted into white supremacist action. Saar’s work, in its focus on the struggle to survive and, at times, thrive in the face of these challenges, lays bare this legacy of oppression and asks us to wade through the waters ourselves.
Alison Saar: Breach continues at the University of Kentucky Art Museum (405 Rose Street, Lexington, Kentucky) through December 3.
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