The image above is an installation piece by Betye Saar (American, born 1926) titled “A Loss of Innocence” (1998). It’s a chair and dress, 50x12x12 inches. The image is included in a Hyperallergic review of her exhibition STILL TICKIN: Six Decades of Betye Saar’s Personal, Political and Mystical Art at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (Jan 30-May 1, 2016). A Loss of Innocence includes a delicate white dress with short, capped sleeves on a wood hanger suspended from a wire directly above a tiny doll-size chair sitting on a low wood pedestal. The chair is a tiny shrine. The dress cast two shadows that spread from the floor to the walls. One shadow looks eerily like a lynched body. The Scottsdale Museum says “There is a touch of alchemy to Betye Saar’s artwork: transforming the simple and mundane into powerful art.” Saar’s art tackles issues of spirituality, race, equality, family relationships and autobiography. Every work is poignant, evocative and emotional.
Betye Saar was born in Los Angeles, CA in 1926. She graduated from UCLA in 1947 with a B.A. degree in design and began her work in the visual arts as a graphic designer and costume maker — a trade that is deeply personal to her because her mother was a seamstress. She continued graduate studies, working toward a career in teaching design. She took an elective course in printmaking that allowed her to segue from design into fine arts. She began making politically themed artwork after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Watts Riots. Saar taught art in Los Angeles at UCLA and the Otis Art Institute. Saar’s works are included in the permanent collections in museums worldwide, including 3 works in the collection at the Whitney Museum of American Art in NY. Saar married and raised 3 daughters. Saar received two National Endowment for the Arts Awards, in 1974 and 1984. In 2008, she was recognized for her career in art and community activism and awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award in Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus.
Betye Saar lives and works in Los Angeles, CA.
In 1967 Saar saw an assemblage by Joseph Cornell at the Pasadena (CA) Art Museum and was inspired to make art out of all the bits and pieces of her own life. She began making assemblages in 1967. She had been collecting images and objects since childhood. She came from a family of collectors. In the 1960s, Saar began collecting images of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom, Little Black Sambo and other stereotyped African-American figures from advertising during the Jim Crow era.
The image above is titled The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972). It’s the first piece Saar made that was politically explicit. Saar said: “My work started to become politicized after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. But The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, which I made in 1972, was the first piece that was politically explicit.There was a community center in Berkeley, on the edge of Black Panther territory in Oakland, called the Rainbow Sign. They issued an open invitation to black artists to be in a show about black heroes, so I decided to make a black heroine.” Read about the Rainbow Sign invitational here. She added: “For many years, I had collected derogatory images: postcards, a cigar-box label, an ad for beans, Darkie toothpaste. I found a little Aunt Jemima mammy figure, a caricature of a black slave, like those later used to advertise pancakes. Saar added: “She had a broom in one hand. I gave her a rifle. In front of her, I placed a little postcard, of a mammy with a mulatto child, which is another way black women were exploited during slavery.I used the derogatory image to empower the black woman by making her a revolutionary, like she was rebelling against her past enslavement.When my work was included in the exhibition ‘WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution’, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2007, the activist and academic Angela Davis gave a talk in which she said the black women’s movement started with my work The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. That was a real thrill.”
In American popular culture the mammy figure was a depiction of servility. Saar turned her Aunt Jemima into a warrior, brandishing weapons, contending with injustice, facing the darkest chapters of American history. The Liberation of Aunt Jemima is in the permanent collection of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. It’s Saar’s most iconic piece. Photo: Benjamin Blackwell, courtesy of the artist and Roberts & Tilton, LA, CA. Read more about how Betye Saar transformed the Aunt Jemima image into a symbol of black power in an artsy.net review here.
The image above shows a young Betye Saar in 1970 in a room she used as an art studio.
The image above is an installation view of the exhibition Keeping It Clean at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles (May 28-August 20, 2017). The solo show presented a mix of new and historic works that included Saar’s ongoing series of washboard assemblage sculptures, begun in the late 1990s.
In a review in the contemporary art magazine Art and Cake (June 28, 2017), Shana Nys Dambrot wrote: The washboard is a perfect object for Saar’s creative enterprise, whose particular magic has been the fusion of aesthetic, narrative, politics, and innovation into singular objects that triumph at all their tasks in art and in society.” In Saar’s own words, the new pieces are intended as reminders “that America has not yet cleaned up her act.”
Betye Saar also said: “I wanted to do an exhibition of my washboards because they are intimate and hands-on…It’s a body of work that I am still making, and the new works are inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. People think racism happens everywhere else, but racism still exists in Los Angeles.”
The image above is titled Mother and Children in Blue (1998), watercolor and mixed media collage on paper, 8 5/8 x 6 ½ inches, permanent collection at the Whitney Museum of American Art, NY – purchased with funds from the Drawing Committee.
The image above is titled Locksmith (2018), Mixed Media assemblage with metal frame, antique door locks, metal keys and vintage photograph, 14 x 11 ¾ inches.
The image above is titled Uneasy Dancer – Sock it to “Em (2011). It’s a red leather boxing glove with a watch on the wrist band and a mammy figure in a red dress tucked inside on top. The time on the watch is stopped at 5 minutes after 5. “Uneasy Dancer” is an expression Betye Saar has used to define both herself and her artistic practice. I found this image in a review for Saar’s first exhibition in Milan, Italy installed at Fondazione Prada (15 Sep 2016 – 08 Jan 2017). Read more here.
The image above is titled Indigo Illusions (1991), mixed media assemblage with neon. This work was included in an exhibition titled “Betye Saar: Something Blue” at Roberts Projects in Los Angeles (Oct 27-Dec 15, 2018). All the works were made between 1983 and 2018 and all feature the color blue. Roberts Projects is Betye Saar’s gallery in CA and the exhibition was organized to show how she uses blue as a means to explore concepts of magic, voodoo and the occult.
The image above is dated 2016 and shows Betye Saar in her studio with all her stuff. Photo: Ashley Walker, courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles.
The Getty Research Institute (GRI) in Los Angeles is launching an African-American Art History initiative and has acquired the archive of works by Betye Saar as a first step. The GRI will help other museums preserve and digitize their own archives, and is working with the Studio Museum in Harlem, the California African American Museum, Art + Practice in Los Angeles, and Spelman College in Atlanta on this project.
The Brooklyn Museum has installed Saar’s works in an exhibition titled Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power (through February 3, 2019). Saar also has a solo show titled Keepin’ It Clean at the New York Historical Society (November 12, 2018-May 27, 2019).
In a recent interview for the Los Angeles Times, Betye Saar said: “When you’re 92, it takes a lot to get you excited. I paid my dues, and now I’m reaping the rewards…I’m very happy that anybody can go to the Getty Research Institute to discover my work, not just the art community. It’s my contribution.
I am writing a book about women artists who create with collage, assemblage, photo collage and/or installation art. One chapter will be devoted to the artist Betye Saar. Please contact me if you have spoken with her – and thank you.