Turning Uncle Tom’s Cabin upside down, Alison Saar’s Topsy

Jason and the Golden Fleece and the American anti-Slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin combine to upend our own contemporary myths

Alison Saar, Topsy and the Golden Fleece, 2017, wood, tar, steel, ceiling tin, wire, acrylic paint and gold leaf, 35-1/2 x 11-1/2 x-8 1/2 inches (Toledo Museum of Art, ©Alison Saar)

Additional resources
This sculpture at the museum

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:05] We’re in the galleries at the Toledo Museum of Art, looking at a sculpture by Alison Saar called “Topsy and the Golden Fleece.”

Dr. Halona Norton-Westbrook: [0:14] Topsy is a figure from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” She is traditionally represented as this embodiment of wickedness, of mischievousness, the opposite to the golden-haired child, Eva, who is the living embodiment of goodness, purity, and the Christian spirit.

Dr. Harris: [0:36] Topsy steals, she lies, she’s wild, she’s everything Eva isn’t.

Dr. Norton-Westbrook: [0:41] In Stowe’s novel, there’s a closing section where Eva is dying, and takes a lock of her golden hair and gives it to Topsy with the hope that that will bring her into civilization, that that will make her a great Christian child.

Dr. Harris: [0:57] And it does. Topsy is reformed in the novel after Eva gives her this golden lock. In the end, what Stowe does is create this stereotype of this young, wild Black girl that persists into the 20th century.

Dr. Norton-Westbrook: [1:12] It’s incredibly complicated because Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel was meant to be in support of abolition, in support of the movement that ended slavery.

Dr. Harris: [1:20] And it did help.

Dr. Norton-Westbrook: [1:21] Therein lies some of the irony too. Something can be a catalyst like that in history. That doesn’t mean that it’s uncomplicated or that it doesn’t bear the mark of its time.

[1:33] I think that one of the things that Alison Saar is so interested in is, what is the narrative around Topsy that can be reclaimed, that can be reimagined?

Dr. Harris: [1:44] Well, she’s turned the story in a way upside down. Instead of being given Eva’s golden hair, here we see Topsy with her scythe. She’s clearly used that. We can see the golden hair in the right hand. But the other side looks like blood. We have a sense that Eva’s hair has been taken.

Dr. Norton-Westbrook: [2:01] She’s as wild as ever. But she is empowered to take ownership of her own life. She has agency, whereas in the novel [and] then in later depictions of her, she was always a vehicle for other people’s feelings, for other people’s projections.

Dr. Harris: [2:18] She looks angry. There’s a turning of the tables. In fact, this piece was in an exhibition called “Topsy Turvy.” This idea of shifting the narrative of Topsy becoming a figure who controls her own destiny. Here, we’ve got Topsy merged together with an ancient Greek myth, Jason and the Golden Fleece.

Dr. Norton-Westbrook: [2:40] In Jason and the Golden Fleece, the golden fleece is meant to represent kingship and authority. Whoever owns it or holds it, holds the power.

[2:50] What we have here is the artist revisiting both of those stories, merging them. It’s very meaningful that Alison Saar has not entirely abandoned some of the characteristics around Topsy.

[3:05] For instance, she’s described as having hair exactly in the fashion that you see here, in these twisted braids that project from her head, which Alison Saar says she thinks of as Medusa-like.

Dr. Harris: [3:16] Medusa had snakes for hair. The sight of Medusa turned men into stone. She was a frightening, powerful figure. The figure here, too, although she’s just standing in this relaxed position, she is fearsome. She is frightening. She looks angry.

[3:33] Saar talks about how this sculpture, this series of work about Topsy is a reaction to what’s going on in the world in the last few years.

[3:43] So, the Black Lives Matter movement, we can think about the way that social media and everyone having a video camera in their phone has made it possible for us to see images of violence against Black people, against Black men, things that had been happening for centuries, but now exposed, and the kind of anger that those images arouse.

Dr. Norton-Westbrook: [4:04] When you think about the situation that Topsy has been placed in, what could be more human than reacting in absolute anger?

Dr. Harris: [4:13] As I look at this figure, it’s hard not to think about images of female nudes in art history. But here, the tables really are turned. The scythe is in front of her body, it obscures our gaze. A scythe is a tool that was used by slaves to harvest rice. That tool is, here, a tool of empowerment.

[4:36] She takes power for herself. She doesn’t wait to be given anything. She acquires it for herself.

Dr. Norton-Westbrook: [4:43] With this particular character of Topsy, there is how she was represented in the initial novel also, but then also I think we can’t underplay the importance of how that character was picked up and adapted in popular culture to the point where she became an image of ridicule, an image devoid of humanity.

Dr. Harris: [5:01] When you see people through the lens of a stereotype, you don’t see their humanity. Saar has brought back Topsy’s humanity and her agency.

[5:11] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Halona Norton-Westbrook, Toledo Museum of Art and Dr. Beth Harris, "Turning Uncle Tom’s Cabin upside down, Alison Saar’s Topsy," in Smarthistory, April 9, 2019, accessed April 19, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/saar-topsy/.