Hood Quarterly, autumn 2006
Barbara Thompson, Curator of African, Oceanic, and Native American Collections
Caché is a powerful life-sized sculpture by Alison Saar, who was artist-in-residence in Dartmouth College’s Department of Studio Art in 2002. This work presents an autobiographical narrative layered with African and African American artistic and cultural references.
Caché is composed of a carved wooden figure of a reclining female nude swathed in salvaged antique ceiling tin that, like aged skin, emulates the unforgiving hands of time, which emboss the body with birthmarks, scars, stretch marks, and wrinkles. The detailed and repetitious patterns evoke also the scarification of an African woman’s skin to mark her passage through key moments in life.
In this sculpture, Saar gives hair, especially “anglosaxified” hair, as she calls it, a dominant role. The woman’s long, thick mass of straightened hair made up of black wire is stretched out on the floor away from her body, the tips ending in a colossal ball of black wire. Saar’s visual references to hair comment on the construction of racial and cultural identity, particularly her own as a woman of mixed heritage. However, the mass of hair also symbolizes the importance of hair in African and African American cultures, particularly as a reflection of female beauty, the accumulation of experience, and the passage of time and all that time holds and keeps.
Saar draws upon visual clichés in Western art, specifically in her use of the iconic reclining female nude, which historically has symbolized the self-possessed and sexually available woman. However, in Caché the figure’s pose in is anything but relaxed. With one hand poised on the ground, the figure appears to be ready to push up or away. Saar has titled this piece Caché, using the French word for “hidden” or “hiding place,” shrouding the sculpture with an ambiguity that further opposes the cliché of the reclining nude.