Photographic Alphabet: B is for Sara Belleau
By Leah Pfenning
America has long been considered a melting pot, culturally, racially, ideologically and religiously. Of course the pot is not all equal parts, and some parts are given significantly more weight in the "pot" we call the United States. Minnesota-based photographer, Sara Belleau sought to highlight our commonality amongst our differences in her series, Holy Lands. To this end Belleau lassos archetypal religious figures from the Torah, Qur’an and Old Testament and integrates them into a more familiar Americana setting.
Belleau staged the tableaus on sets with painted backdrops constructed in her basement in Minneapolis. The settings have a farmhouse, prairie-esque aesthetic and the constructed sets give the photographs an inherent theatricality. With the current political and social dissonance, Belleau aimed to create a visual declaration of the relevancy of these archaic stories today, and the likeness among the figures from these different religious texts. When there is relativity, there is possibility – the greatest potential being, an understanding.
The intention of the work takes a social stance, which is admirable, but Belleau cuts herself short on her own statement of inclusivity when she chose to exclusively photograph Caucasian models for these religious scenes. Cultural appropriation aside, the all-white casting of these religious figures is problematic, especially under the artist’s statement of “using identifiable characters as multicultural archetypes to illuminate our shared traditions and culture.” The work itself creates an exclusivity of “our” and leaves the viewer wondering, what really is the point of re-imagining and displacing these pious figures in painted prairies.
Holy Lands strips away race, time, space and even any sense of historical context. Perhaps Belleau’s bigger statement is the irrelevancy of the figures in modern times, or moreover, their irrelevancy when taken out of context. What does 'leaving babel', or 'the plague of locusts' mean to a Caucasian person in the Midwest in 2017? And how does a skewed portrayal of religion bring us closer to intersectionality? Belleau’s work certainly stirs the proverbial pot, wafting out a slew of topical questions, to which the answers demand a deeper understanding – perhaps the distorted call-to-action of the Holy Lands series.