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March 4 Art Minute: Alison Saar, Topsy and the Golden Fleece

Art Minute, Art of the Week, toledo museum of art
Alison Saar (American, 1956) Topsy and the Golden Fleece. Wood, tar, steel, ceiling tin, wire, acrylic paint and gold leaf, 2017. Toledo Museum of Art, 2018. Wolfe Gallery

Topsy and the Golden Fleece embodies multiple narratives surrounding race, gender, and empowerment. The artist Alison Saar alludes to the character Topsy, a young slave from Harriet Beecher Stowe's problematic abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851), and also to the story of Jason and the Argonauts from Greek mythology. In Stowe's novel, the dying Eva, daughter of the slave master, gives a lock of her golden hair to her playmate Topsy in an attempt to encourage the girl's conversion to Christianity. Saar interprets Topsy not as the "wild" and vulnerable child of the book, but instead as a dark-skinned, defiant, and powerful adult. Rather than needing to be "saved" by the white, blonde Eva, Topsy is shown as a mythological hero–nude, holding a scythe, her braids encircling her head like a halo or a crown. She carries a golden bundle that suggests the legendary Golden Fleece, a symbol of kingship and authority that the Greek hero Jason had to obtain in order to take his place on the throne. The conflation of the two stories invites a compelling comparison between the Golden Fleece and Eva's lock (head?) of golden hair.