In fact, it is difficult to find detailed information about Augusta Savage. There are several internet sites, but most of them appear to be reposting the same biography. There are significant gaps in her history, and especially about her later years. The only published biography I could locate turned out to be an illustrated children’s book.
What do we know about Savage? She was born in 1892 in Green Cove, Florida, and her childhood was fraught with terror and violence. Early on, she had discovered that she could shape the figures of animals from the clay near her home. Her father, a Methodist minister, considered these “graven images,” and he would stomp on them and then batter the little girl in his efforts to control her. Savage later said, “My father licked me four or five times a week, and almost whipped all the art out of me.”
Around the time of her graduation, she was selected to attend a summer art program outside of Paris with a hundred other young American women. When it was discovered that she was African American, her application was refused by the French. A scandal ensued, but the decision was not revoked.
This same year, Savage married Robert Lincoln Poston, an associate of Marcus Garvey, the charismatic Jamaican radical who had founded the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Harlem in 1916. Garvey also founded the Black Star Line, a shipping and passenger line, and promoted the dream of using these Black-owned ships to return African Americans to their ancestral lands. Poston had been sent with a delegation to secure lands in Liberia for these settlements, but sadly, he died of pneumonia on his return voyage, just one year after marrying Savage. She was a significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance and sculpted busts of both W.E.B. Dubois and Marcus Garvey. Savage was one of the first artists in any genre to consistently work with black physiognomy.
So that’s what we know through biography. There is another encyclopedia of knowledge encoded in Realization.
Unable to find anything Savage wrote or narrated about the piece, I am going to share my subjective response.
The male could be either her son or her partner. In either case, he is posed in a position suggestive of a frightened child. This is a radical choice on the part of Savage.
Unquestionably, Savage was familiar with the sculpture The Greek Slave, by American sculptor Hiram Power. Completed in 1844, it went on to become one of the best-known and critically acclaimed artworks of the nineteenth century. Unlike Savage, Powers’ words about his creation have been preserved:
When the statue went on international tour, the pamphet read: “It represents a being superior to suffering, and raised above degradation, by inward purity and force of character.”
Without any knowledge of Savage's grandparents, one could reasonably conclude that, if they were in Florida in the mid-1860’s, they were most probably enslaved on a plantation. Savage’s work reflects a perspective that, in my eyes, is uniquely female and, unlike Powers’, deeply identified with the victims of enslavement. It is impossible to “pornographize” Realization. In fact, I find it difficult to imagine that anyone viewing the piece could do anything except empathize with the suffering represented in the figures. Also, it is important to remember that Savage's childhood was that of a captive, forced to endure multiple beatings every week.
This photograph is itself a work of art. The creator is part of the grouping. She is touching the shoulder and the foot of the male victim, putting herself into the work. Savage's face says, “I bear witness.” I cannot imagine the fortitude it took to create this piece. The world that celebrates The Pietà and The Greek Slave will never be able to look this work in the face. It should rank as one of the great sculptures of the world.
I wrote this blog to say, “I see you, Augusta Savage. I see what you have done. I will live with the impact of this work for the rest of my life. You have given me and the world a great gift, and I know it came at incalculable cost to yourself. Thank you.”