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Betye Saar Photo

Betye Saar

African-American Assemblage Artist

Born: July 30, 1926 - Los Angeles, California
"I think the chanciest thing is to put spirituality in art, because people don't understand it. Writers don't know what to do with it. They're scared of it, so they ignore it. But if there's going to be any universal consciousness-raising, you have to deal with it, even though people will ridicule you."
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Betye Saar
"I don't know how politics can be avoided. If you happen to be a young Black male, your parents are terrified that you're going to be arrested - if they hang out with a friend, are they going to be considered a gang? That kind of fear is one you have to pay attention to. It's not comfortable living in the United States."
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"To me the trick is to seduce the viewer. If you can get the viewer to look at a work of art, then you might be able to give them some sort of message."
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"I'm the kind of person who recycles materials but I also recycle emotions and feelings, and I had a great deal of anger about the segregation and the racism in this country."
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"You can't beat Nature for color. She's got it down."
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"I consider myself a recycler. I've been that way since I was a kid, going through trash to see what people left behind. Good stuff."
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"I keep thinking of giving up political subjects, but you can't. Because racism is still here. Worse than ever."
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"I am intrigued with combining the remnant of memories, fragments of relics and ordinary objects, with the components of technology. It's a way of delving into the past and reaching into the future simultaneously."
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"The way I start a piece is that the materials turn me on. I find an object and then it hangs around and it hangs around before I get an idea on how to use it. There are some things that I find that I get a sensation in my hand - I can't say it's a spirit or something - but I don't feel comfortable with it so I don't buy it, I don't use it."
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"The objects that I use, because they're old (or used, at least), bring their own story; they bring their past with them. I have no idea what that history is. If the object is from my home or my family, I can guess. But I like that idea of not knowing, even though the story's still there."
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"When the camera clicks, that moment is unrecoverable. It is gone yet remains, frozen in time and space on a piece of paper. The photograph can reveal many things ... and yet it still has secrets. There is a mystery with clues to a lost reality."
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Summary of Betye Saar

A cherished exploration of objects and the way we use them to provide context, connection, validation, meaning, and documentation within our personal and universal realities, marks all of Betye Saar's work. As an African-American woman, she was ahead of her time when she became part of a largely man's club of new assemblage artists in the 1960s. Since then, her work, mostly consisting of sculpturally-combined collages of found items, has come to represent a bridge spanning the past, present, and future; an arc that paves a glimpse of what it has meant for the artist to be black, female, spiritual, and part of a world ever-evolving through its technologies to find itself heavily informed by global influences. This kaleidoscopic investigation into contemporary identity resonates throughout her entire career, one in which her work is now duly enveloped by the same realm of historical artifacts that sparked her original foray into art. Over time, Saar's work has come to represent, via a symbolically rich visual language, a decades' long expedition through the environmental, cultural, political, racial, and economic concerns of her lifetime.

Accomplishments

  • Saar's explorations into both her own racial identity, as well as the collective Black identity, was a key motif in her art. Her contributions to the burgeoning Black Arts Movement encompassed the use of stereotypical "Black" objects and images from popular culture to spotlight the tendrils of American racism as well as the presentation of spiritual and indigenous artifacts from other "Black" cultures to reflect the inner resonances we find when exploring fellow community.
  • Similarly, Saar's experience as a woman in the burgeoning Feminist movement also showed up largely in her art: items such as washboards, ironing boards, clothing, or other tokens of domesticity appear as odes to women's work, refigured as representations of the creative female voice, bursting from its confines.
  • Spirituality plays a central role in Saar's art, particularly its branches that veer on the edge of magical and alchemical practices, like much of what is seen historically in the African and Oceanic religion lineages. A vast collector of totems, "mojos," amulets, pendants, and other devotional items, Saar's interest in these small treasures, and the meanings affixed to them, continues to provide inspiration.
  • Saar's work is marked by a voracious, underlying curiosity toward the mystical and how its perpetual, invisible presence in our lives has a hand in forming our reality. She says, "It may not be possible to convey to someone else the mysterious transforming gifts by which dreams, memory, and experience become art. But I like to think I can try."

Biography of Betye Saar

Detail from <i>Leader</i> (1998)

Saar, who grew up being attuned to the spiritual and the mystical, and who came of age at the peak of the Civil Rights movement, has long been a rebel, choosing to work in assemblage, a medium typically considered “male”, and using her works to confront the racist stereotypes and messages that continue to pervade the American visual realm.



Progression of Art

1969

Black Girl's Window

In the large bottom panel of this repurposed, weathered, wooden window frame, Saar painted a silhouette of a Black girl pressing her face and hands against the pane. Her only visible features are two blue eyes cut from a lens-like material that creates the illusion of blinking while the viewer changes position. Floating around the girl's head, and on the palms of her hands, are symbols of the moon and stars. In the nine smaller panels at the top of the window frame are various vignettes, including a representation of Saar's astrological sign Leo, two skeletons (one black and one white), a phrenological chart (a disproven pseudo-science that implied the superiority of white brains over Black), a tintype of an unknown white woman (meant to symbolize Saar's mixed heritage), an eagle with the word "LOVE" across its breast (symbolizing patriotism), and a 1920s Valentine's Day card depicting a couple dancing (meant to represent family).

Art critic Ann C. Collins writes that "Saar uses her window to not only frame her girl within its borders, but also to insist she is acknowledged, even as she stands on the other side of things, face pressed against the glass as she peers out from a private space into a world she cannot fully access."

This work marked the moment when Saar shifted her artistic focus from printmaking to collage and assemblage. It is strongly autobiographical, representing a sort of personal cosmology, based on symbolism from the tarot, astrology, heraldry, and palmistry. Death is situated as a central theme, with the skeletons (representing the artist's father's death when she was just a young child) occupying the central frame of the nine upper vignettes. The other images in the work allude to the public and the political.

Black Girl's Window was a direct response to a work created one year earlier by Saar's friend (and established member of the Black Arts Movement) David Hammons, titled Black Boy's Window (1968), for which Hammons placed a contact-printed image of an impression of his own body inside of a scavenged window frame. By coming into dialogue with Hammons' art, Saar flagged her own growing involvement with the Black Arts Movement. This work foreshadowed several central themes in Saar's oeuvre, including mysticism, spirituality, death and grief, racial politics, and self-reflection. It is likely that this work by Saar went on to have an influence on her student, Kerry James Marshall, who adopted the technique of using monochrome black to represent African-American skin.

Mixed media assemblage (Wooden window frame with paint, cut-and-pasted printed and painted papers, daguerreotype, lenticular print, and plastic figurine) - Museum of Modern Art, New York

1971

Nine Mojo Secrets

In Nine Mojo Secrets, Saar used a window found in a salvage yard, with arched tops and leaded panes as a frame, and within this she combined personal symbols (like the toy lion, representing her astrological sign, and the crescent moons and stars, which she had used in previous works) with symbols representing Africa, including the central photograph of an African religious ceremony, which she took from a National Geographic magazine. At the bottom of the work, she attached wheat, feathers, leather, fur, shells and bones.

This work was made after Saar's visit to the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History in 1970, where she became deeply inspired to emulate African art. She had been particularly interested in a chief's garment, which had the hair of several community members affixed to it in order to increase its magical power. She attempted to use this concept of the "power of accumulation," and "power of objects once living" in her own art. She began creating works that incorporated "mojos," which are charms or amulets used for their supposed magical and healing powers. She explains that learning about African art allowed her to develop her interest in Black history backward through time, "which means like going back to Africa or other darker civilizations, like Egypt or Oceanic, non-European kinds of cultures. And the kind of mystical things that belonged to them, part of their religion and their culture. And the mojo is a kind of a charm that brings you a positive feeling."

Arts writer Jonathan Griffin explains that "Saar began to consider more and more the inner lives of her ancestors, who led rich and free lives in Africa before being enslaved and brought across the Atlantic [and] to the spiritual practices of slaves once they arrived in America, broadly categorized as hoodoo."

Saar also mixed symbols from different cultures in this work, in order to express that magic and ritual are things that all people share, explaining, "It's like a universal statement... man has a need for some kind of ritual." For instance, she also included an open, red palm print embossed with the all-seeing eye, as well as a small head of unknown origin (believed to be Exú). Marci Kwon notes that Saar isn't "just simply trying to illustrate one particular spiritual system [but instead] is piling up all of these emblems of meaning and almost creating her own personal iconography."

At the same time, as historian Daniel Widener notes, "one overall effect of this piece is to heighten a vertical cosmological sensibility - stars and moons above but connected to Earth, dirt, and that which lies under it."

Saar notes that in nearly all of her Mojo artworks (including Mojo Bag (1970), and Ten Mojo Secrets (1972)) she has included "secret information, just like ritual pieces of other cultures. There is always a secret part, especially in fetishes from Africa [...] but you don't really want to know what it is. It may be a pouch containing an animal part or a human part in there. To me, those secrets radiate something that makes you uneasy."

Mixed-media window assemblage - California African American Museum, Los Angeles, California

1972

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima

Saar created this three-dimensional assemblage out of a sculpture of Aunt Jemima, built as a holder for a kitchen notepad. Jemima was a popular character created by a pancake company in the 1890s which depicted a jovial, domestic black matron in an ever-present apron, perpetually ready to whip up a stack for breakfast when not busy cleaning the house. Saar explained that, "It's like they abolished slavery but they kept Black people in the kitchen as Mammy jars." The figure stands inside a wooden frame, above a field of white cotton, with pancake advertisements as a backdrop. In front of the sculpture sits a photograph of a Black Mammy holding a white baby, which is partially obscured by the image of a clenched black fist (the "black power" symbol). In her right hand is a broomstick, symbolizing domesticity and servitude. Under this arm is tucked a grenade and in the left hand, is placed a rifle. According to Saar, "I wanted to empower her. I wanted to make her a warrior. I wanted people to know that Black people wouldn't be enslaved" by derogatory images and stereotypes. All of the component pieces of this work are Jim Crow-era images that exaggerate racial stereotypes, found by Saar in flea markets and yard sales during the 1960s.

This work was rife with symbolism on multiple levels. It was produced in response to a 1972 call from the Rainbow Sign Cultural Center in Berkeley, seeking artworks that depicted Black heroes. It was also created as a reaction to the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the 1965 Watts riots, which were catalyzed by residential segregation and police discrimination in Los Angeles. It foregrounds and challenges the problematic racist trope of the Black Mammy character, and uses this as an analogy for racial stereotypes more broadly.

Curator Helen Molesworth writes that, "Through her exploitation of pop imagery, specifically the trademarked Aunt Jemima, Saar utterly upends the perpetually happy and smiling mammy [...] Simultaneously caustic, critical, and hilarious, the smile on Aunt Jemima's face no longer reads as subservient, but rather it glimmers with the possibility of insurrection. The Liberation of Aunt Jemima also refuses to privilege any one aspect of her identity [...] insisting as much on women's liberty from drudgery as it does on African American's emancipation from second class citizenship."

Black Panther activist Angela Davis has gone so far as to assert that this artwork sparked the Black women's movement.

Mix media assemblage - Berkeley Art Museum, California

1987

Mojotech

With Mojotech, created as artist-in-residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Saar explored the bisection of historical modes of spirituality with the burgeoning field of technology. The resulting work, comprised of a series of mounted panels, resembles a sort of ziggurat-shaped altar that stretches about 7.5 meters along a wall. The installation, reminiscent of a community space, combined the artists recurring theme of using various mojos (amulets and charms traditionally used in voodoo based-beliefs) like animal bones, Native American beadwork, and figurines with modern circuit boards and other electronic components. It was also intended to be interactive and participatory, as visitors were invited to bring their own personal devotional or technological items to place on a platform at the base. The inspiration for this "accumulative process" came from African sculpture traditions that incorporate "a variety of both decorative and 'power' elements from throughout the community."

Art writer Jonathan Griffin argues that "Saar professes to believe in certain forms of mysticism and arcana, but standing in front of Mojotech, it is hard to shake the idea that here she is using this occult paraphernalia to satirize the faith we place in the inscrutable workings of technology." Similarly, curator Jennifer McCabe writes that, "In Mojotech, Saar acts as a seer of culture, noting the then societal nascent obsession with technology, and bringing order and beauty to the unaesthetic machine-made forms."

Saar explains, "I am intrigued with combining the remnant of memories, fragments of relics and ordinary objects, with the components of technology. It's a way of delving into the past and reaching into the future simultaneously."

In this case, Saar's creation of a cosmology based on past, present, and future, a strong underlying theme of all her work, extended out from the personal to encompass the societal.

Mixed media installation - Roberts Projects Los Angeles

1998

Loss of Innocence

This installation consists of a long white christening gown hung on a wooden hanger above a small wooden doll's chair, upon which stands a framed photograph of a child. On the fabric at the bottom of the gown, Saar has attached labels upon which are written pejorative names used to insult back children, including "Pickaninny," "Tar Baby," "Niggerbaby," and "Coon Baby." Curator Lowery Stokes Sims explains that "These jarring epithets serve to offset the seeming placidity of the christening dress and its evocation of the promise of a life just coming into focus by alluding to the realities to be faced by this innocent young child once out in the world."

The work carries an eerily haunting sensibility, enhanced by the weathered, deteriorated quality of the wooden chair, and the fact that the shadows cast by the gown resemble a lynched body, further alluding to the historical trauma faced by African-Americans. Arts writer Nan Collymore shares that this piece affected her strongly, and made her want to "cry into [her] sleeve and thank artists like Betye Saar for their courage to create such work and give voice to feelings that otherwise lie dormant in our bodies for decades."

Arts writer Zachary Small asserts that, "Contemplating this work, I cannot help but envisage Saar's visual art as literature. She joins Eugenia Collier, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison in articulating how the loss of innocence earmarks one's transition from childhood to adulthood." Meanwhile, arts writer Victoria Stapley-Brown reads this work as "a powerful reminder of the way black women and girls have been sexualized, and the sexual violence against them."

Chair, dress, and framed photo - Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California

2017

We Was Mostly 'Bout Survival

For this work, Saar repurposed a vintage ironing board, upon which she painted a bird's-eye view of the deck of the slave ship Brookes (crowded with bodies), which has come to stand as a symbol of Black suffering and loss. Other items have been fixed to the board, including a wooden ship, an old bar of soap (which art historian Ellen Y. Tani sees as "a surrogate for the woman's body, worn by labor, her skin perhaps chapped and cracked by hours of scrubbing laundry), and a washboard onto which has been printed a photograph of a Black woman doing laundry.

These symbols of Black female domestic labor, when put in combination with the symbols of diasporic trauma, reveal a powerful story about African American history and experience. Arts writer Zachary Small notes that, "Historical trauma has a way of transforming everyday objects into symbols of latent terror. [...] The washboard of the pioneer woman was a symbol of strength, of rugged perseverance in unincorporated territory and fealty to family survival. In contrast, the washboard of the Black woman was a ball and chain that conferred subjugation, a circumstance of housebound slavery." Moreover, art critic Nancy Kay Turner notes, "Saar's intentional use of dialect known as African-American Vernacular English in the title speaks to other ways African-Americans are debased and humiliated."

Saar created an entire body of work from washboards for a 2018 exhibition titled "Keepin' it Clean," inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. She explains that the title refers to "more than just keeping your clothes clean - but keeping your morals clean, keeping your life clean, keeping politics clean." Curator Wendy Ikemoto argues, "I think this exhibition is essential right now. I hope it encourages dialogue about history and our nation today, the racial relations and problems we still need to confront in the 21st century."

Curator Holly Jerger asserts, "Saar's washboard assemblages are brilliant in how they address the ongoing, multidimensional issues surrounding race, gender, and class in America. She compresses these enormous, complex concerns into intimate works that speak on both a personal and political level."

Mixed media assemblage on vintage ironing board - The Eileen Harris Norton Collection


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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Betye Saar Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 24 Oct 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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