Lin May Saeed, an artist whose sculptures encouraged empathy with animals by way of tender narratives and quietly forceful activist musings, has died at 50. Her dealer Chris Sharp, whose Los Angeles gallery represented her alongside Frankfurt’s Galerie Jack Strenz, said Saeed had been battling brain cancer.
All of Saeed’s work sought to reestablish lost relationships with animals, whom she viewed as humanity’s equals. Her sculptures were rooted in the politics of the animal liberation movement, yet they rarely made direct pronouncements about how we should relate to the menagerie of cats, panthers, pangolins, lions, calfs, camels, and foxes that she depicted.
“Saeed’s works usually tell a story―though she prefers the term ‘fable’—and often borrows the tales from Abrahamic scriptures, history, protests, myths, and dreams, leaving the implications open to interpretation,” Emily Watlington wrote in Art in America. “Because she constantly revisits the theme of human-animal relations, there’s no mistaking where Saeed stands. Still, she approaches her subject with empathy and grace: her work is not self-righteous, and it does not preach.”
Sharp, her dealer, seemed to concur, writing in Mousse, “While it is hard to imagine appreciating Saeed’s practice if you’re not sympathetic to its political convictions, it is not, I believe, a prerequisite (but then again, who doesn’t like animals? Who among us, if pushed, wouldn’t be open to a more equitable relationship with the animal kingdom?).”
She lived by example, working in her Berlin studio alongside two rabbits, whom she created sculptures for, and frequently reusing materials such as Styrofoam that she sourced from people’s trash and the urban landscape. She was a vegan for more than 25 years, and was herself an activist, having found her cause while in college during the ’90s.
Saeed’s politics were contagious. In her A.i.A. essay, Watlington reported that she knew of at least three people who became vegetarians after seeing Saeed’s work.
Her art had a range of references, from contemporary philosophy to centuries-old mythology. On her website, Saeed quoted the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Mesopotamian text, at length to discuss how humanity now relates to nature. “The objective is to develop a world, in which humans and animals can live peacefully with each other, beyond historical experiences,” she wrote. “The question is where our path is leading to since we removed ourselves from animals.”
Some of Saeed’s works represent humans alongside animals. Cleaner (2006/20) features a person in a hazmat suit cradling a small horse whose head is flopped over one leg; this human appears to be gently massaging the animal’s back. St. Jerome and Lion (2016), one of Saeed’s gates formed from steel, takes up a biblical narrative about a man who did not fear his sharp-toothed companion, even pulling a thorn from one of its paws.
Yet a number of her Styrofoam sculptures center animals who are shown either in harmony with humans or on their own. Even in isolation, her animals are still afforded their own psychology. “I understand my works not as objects, but as subjects,” she once said.
Lin May Saeed was born in 1973 in Würzburg, Germany. Her father had come to Germany from Iraq during the ’60s and made a point of not speaking Arabic in the house. Perhaps as a means of reclaiming that heritage, Saeed would later include Arabic in her work.
She initially set out to become a stage designer. By the time she entered the Düsseldorf Art Academy during the late ’90s, she had worked on productions in Wiesbaden and had plans to study the discipline. But in her first year, she made the switch to sculpture, which she described as “a male-dominated field, not only ideologically.”
The turn away from stage design coincided with her new focus on animal abuse. “Despite my great love for theatre and opera,” she once told Artists and Climate Change, “it became clear that these performative art forms were centered around man: there are no animals in theatre.”
Her thesis project for her graduation in 2001 was a Styrofoam version of the Capitoline Wolf, the 15th-century sculpture that allegorizes the birth of Rome as a she-wolf breastfeeding Romulus and Remus. Styrofoam, as Saeed pointed out, is easy to produce and hard to destroy, and she used it both as a challenge to traditional sculptural mediums and as a means to represent all that humanity had wrought on the natural environment.
“From an environmental point of view, Styrofoam is problematic,” she told Bomb. “It is human-produced, so it is a material that reveals human fallibility. In a perfect world there would be no Styrofoam.”
During the intervening decades, her work would take a variety of forms, from cut paper pieces based on drawings to large-scale metal works.
In the past decade, her work has begun to be seen widely, appearing in venues around Germany such as the Berlin Biennale and the Museum Frieder Burda, as well as in other European venues like the Amsterdam Sculpture Biennale, the Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts, and the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, Italy. In 2020, she had her most comprehensive show to date at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. A solo show is set to open in September at the Georg Kolbe Museum in Berlin.
She was not afraid to dream big with her art and activism. In her Bomb interview, critic Osman Can Yerebakan asked how animals may join humans in the fight for equality. She responded, “When I see a utopian approach to your question, my favorite daydream comes to mind involving how climate change is solved. Animals and aliens give a master class for homo sapiens called: How Not To Mess It Up. “