Lezley Saar: Diorama Drama
Diorama Drama is an exhibition that brings vast archives of media and materials together to form stunning visuals and narratives, each within their own “diorama” in the gallery space. What was it like conceptualizing such an exhibition?
I’ve always wanted to do an installation using only my artwork to create a story or play, with each piece being a character in the setting. Because I loved looking at the dioramas of animals at The Natural History Museum where my dad worked here in Los Angeles, I came up with the idea of doing separate dioramas, each with its own story comprised of all the separate stories of the individual works/characters. Since this is a craft museum, I chose mixed media works that veered into the craft realm such as tapestries, altered books, fashion/sewing, and collage. I chose crafty works. I had planned the groupings of works for each diorama beforehand, but it changed during the installation when I could really feel how they worked together.
Your work deals heavily with Victorian themes and European aesthetics, bringing to mind cabinets of curiosity and other colonial methods of viewing the “exotic.” In what ways do you utilize this connection in your work?
I am biracial, and my way of getting this thematically across is by juxtaposing the historic European, Gothic Victorian aesthetic with my portraits of Black or mixed people. I show the forced colonial influence with the use of European fabrics and such. I’m fond of a Victorian, Gothic mood — it’s dark and beautiful. It’s a vehicle for transporting people to another time and reality. That’s entertainment. Also, the Victorian era was when photographs first emerged of African American folks and Black Europeans dressed in their best, so there’s an interesting truth for me to use these photos as inspirations for my paintings and collages. In addition, I like to address current social issues by setting my paintings in the 19th Century. I feel it’s a less flat footed approach than setting it in the present, and also expresses the fact that these issues, such as trans and gender identity, or colorism, have been around for a long time. I’ve been doing this Victorian thing for over 30 years.
There are many different individuals portrayed in each diorama through your painted tapestries, many with names and stories told through their title. Who are they, and how long have their stories existed?
The painted tapestries are from two of my recent series: A Conjuring of Conjurors and Black Garden. So I just made up all those names and stories. I wanted to explore all the different types of conjuring: ritual, healing, magic, folklore, casting spells and so on. They are not based on any actual religions or cultures, just my imagination. I had fun writing them. I tried to make them mysterious and silly. The titles from the two other tapestries are lines from a great poem by Antonin Artaud, Black Garden.
Along with the individuals in your tapestries, there are also your three-dimensional “conjurors” each with their own name, purpose, and items central to their identity. What was the process of creating these conjurors — did the individuals exist first, or were the items the initial inspiration?
The initial inspiration for the Conjuror totems was to complete the theme of "conjurors" by going three-dimensional and large, but mainly I really wanted to do fashion. I sewed and created their outfits with a certain aspect of conjuring in mind, and then gave them names and stories. I feel there’s less freedom if I start with a specific idea. I usually have a general idea, but like to work with aesthetics and materials, often found, to create something that has a certain mood, then I attribute a name or title or story to it. The whole idea of A Conjuring of Conjurors is about creating one’s own reality. The 19th century novel, Against Nature (A Rebours) by Joris Karl Huysmans inspired this idea.
All of the conjurors seem to have hairstyles that serve as representation of their head, rather than a more explicit depiction of a face. What went behind that decision?
I wanted their heads to have a mystical, smoke-like quality while at the same time looking like wild hair. The kind of head a conjuror would have.
The gallery also hosts your altered books, featuring individuals oftentimes with roles rather than conventional names as their titles — The Clairvoyant, The Revitalist, The Pilgrim. Was there intention behind the difference in titling?
These altered books are all my most recent. They’re not part of my A Conjuring of Conjurors series — I made them for Diorama Drama, with the intention of the titles having theatrical descriptions or attributes of characters in a play. Within my dioramas, I wanted people to feel like they were seeing a play where they could walk about on the stage, hence the velvet curtains and different colored walls.
The books, mini dioramas, and collages are small which contrasts with the large painted tapestries and Conjuror totems. I try to create a tension and drama with this difference in scale and detail.
I noticed very few books had their “original” titles visible — the fronts being carved out, and the spines often covered. Do the physical books themselves hold significance to the work?
I’ve been doing altered books since the mid '80s, and originally I left more of the books showing. The book is more of a metaphor for one to be transported by a narrative as one is with reading a book. Now I just enjoy the freedom of being able to be more abstract, and stream of consciousness, in creating the covers. So the physical books themselves don’t hold any significance to the work. They just need to be large enough to fit a painting within.
You mentioned that some of the carved books were older works of yours. Did those books become starting points for the larger dioramas, or did they find their way naturally into the installation?
I’ve always felt the altered books were like dioramas because of the space within their hollowed out centers and the objects I sometimes place inside them, such a miniature pine cones. So it seemed natural to use the older altered books in this exhibition as well as making new ones to include as well.
Another depiction of people is found in the photographs featured in your collages, mainly with titles not featuring names nor roles. For me, I see a sort of divide between the photographed individual and the — forgive me for not having a better word — “created” individual in the exhibition. Is there a distinction between the two?
The collages are perhaps more surreal than the paintings — by having images of nature and man-made structures as extensions of the people, I’m able to question the true self. And yes, the titles for the collages do have a different approach than titles for my other works.
There’s a certain freedom in doing collages because painting is difficult, quite frankly, so I like for the collage titles to be rather out there, strange even to me.
I wanted to talk about the depiction of hair throughout Diorama Drama. Some of the conjurors have wefts of hair on their outfits of a starkly different texture compared to the hair that comprises the conjurors’ heads. What role does hair play in these totems, as well as in the exhibition as a whole?
Thirty-seven years ago I did an altered book with a drawing of a woman in a boat with a suspended, floating box filled with hair with the words “My Hair, Help Yourself” written on it. Ever since then hair has played a symbolic or surreal role in my work. While hair is an indicator of race and all the luggage that goes with that, it can also express freedom and escape.
A diorama that stood out to me was The Interrupted Story. Here, the majority of the pieces have inverted colors, as well as items seemingly related to the concept of “white” rather than one of the smaller dioramas from your Autists’ Fables series. It is also one of the areas that feature more apparent depictions of white people, through their inclusion in photographs on the conjuror Nostalia, the pale protector of souls whose images are found in the forgotten photo albums strewn on the asphalt ground of parking lot swap meets. I wanted to ask more about this diorama, as well as its relation to the other dioramas in the exhibition.
In the diorama The Interrupted Story I was playing with the notion of black and white, negative and positive, so The Conjuror Nostalia, the tapestry painting Nessida, and the collages and cabinet of curiosities all have a black, white and beige color palette. It’s a way of questioning race, and turning logic upside down.
Being a white presenting Black person, I’ve long dealt with the exploration of race in my work, but just recently I addressed it by doing paintings and collages as a negative image. But all of the works in this diorama, I hope, work together as a whole to tell a story of loss and longing.
Your Autists’ Fables series is also an older work, one that connects directly to your son. How did these find their way into the exhibition?
The dioramas from my Autist Fables series fit into the exhibition because they are dioramas. The series is based on true stories about my now Trans male, autistic son. I thought it would be nice to have the small scaled dioramas within the larger than life scale dioramas, like a play within a play.
Lastly, I wanted to ask about the one conjuror that seems to stand alone: Epiphanie, the illusionist, surround herself with the tools of her trade such as ropes which symbolize ascension, and mirror that symbolize water, as she induces trance possessions to other worlds. She stands by the central wall, appearing to belong to no diorama. What is her role in the exhibition?
The one Conjuror who stands alone, Epiphanie, is an illusionist or magician from the Victorian era. She plays the role of the MC, or hostess, who is introducing or announcing all the dioramas in the exhibition.
How do you interpret the relationship between the dioramas as whole?
I really just wanted to present these scenes, these dioramas, that tell stories — stories that I’ve left intentionally open-ended so that people can imagine their own interpretations and stories.
Nina Simone said that artists must reflect the times. I do try to deal with current social issues in my work, but for me a reflection of our time is the desire to escape this current reality, and through the use of the time-traveling Victorian era, surrealism and symbolism, I hope to provide a means of escape for others as well.