“I just like using an ordinary object, and changing the meaning of it.” — Betye Saar
“Betye Saar is to assemblage what Mick Jagger is
to rock and roll.” — Monica Wyatt
The assemblage work of Betye Saar is soft- spoken; conveying its message in a beguiling whisper, feminine in its vernacular, adamant in its power. Its very impact comes from an unexpected paradoxical fusion of quietude and strength. Sourced from a place of grace, Saar makes a statement loaded like the rifles she embeds in her imagery. However quotidian the components of her assemblages might seem on the surface, they are imbued with symbolism, historical significance, personal meaning and intent, all artfully combined.
“My artworks are created from my collections of objects, images, things and ideas,” Saar said in an email interview with Fabrik. “Each object has a story, and I create a story by combining the objects, images and ideas together. I try to integrate my materials so that unlinked objects appear to be connected,”
On the surface, her recent exhibition at the Craft and Folk Art Museum (CAFAM), Keepin’ it Clean, was about laundry. The title refers to the washboards, ironing boards, linens—objects with which she assembled this body of work. On a deeper level, they are artifacts and symbols of women’s work, the work of domestic help, and, from not so far back as to be forgotten, the labor of slaves. Saar has used these materials as points of departure towards a look at something difficult to confront. In I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break, for instance, Saar has imprinted a vintage ironing board with the image of a slave ship and a black woman ironing. More shocking is the backdrop: a white sheet on which the initials “KKK” are pristinely embroidered. “This piece illustrates the interaction of the KKK sheet and the woman who keeps it clean,” said Saar.
As a young artist, Saar began collecting objects that portrayed black people in a demeaning way; as she describes them, “mammies, uncle Toms and piccaninnies”—like the beatific face of Aunt Jemima. “When I began to collect derogatory images in the 1960s, I noticed they were designed as humorous cards, but at the same time [were] degrading for African Americans,” said Saar. “As I recycle these images into my artworks, I try to reverse the meaning of the images into something that is more positive. For example, [in] my assemblage The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, I transformed her from a worker to a warrior by substituting a rifle instead of a pencil in her hand.”
When she empowered the docile Aunt Jemima, Saar re-appropriated and flipped the prevailing cultural narrative. Indeed, why should Aunt Jemima be complicit in her white-conceived character? Saar’s enthralling art, which forces conflicting concepts and symbols to collide, becomes a profound form of visual activism. “As I continued to work with these images in what I call my ’political series,’ for example the washboards, I was interested in creating a visual contradiction of the pain of a so-called ‘humorous’ image,” Saar said.
While the artist’s work—and Saar herself—may come across as subtle, her momentum and influence are significant and far-reaching. In a panel discussion at CAFAM last July led by LA based curator Dr. jillith moniz, local assemblage artists Duane Paul, Monica Wyatt and Rosalyn Myles discussed Saar’s impact on their visions. “Betye pushes the boundaries,” said moniz. “The work she did portraying black women was powerful at a time when we weren’t considered sexual beings. She paved the way for other artists… gave them their freedom to be highly narrative, provocative and unapologetically political. That freedom comes with a price. In keeping with her radical agenda of authenticity, Betye, I think, would insist that these artists locate themselves on the right side of history.”
Ripples from Saar’s influence are also being felt across the Atlantic, where a gallery devoted to her work is featured as part of Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at the Tate Modern in London. On view through October 22, this landmark survey focuses on the work of African American artists from 1963 to 1983. One theme the exhibit explores is the beginnings of the Black Feminism movement in which Saar played a major role, and which has ongoing offshoots today. In August, in conjunction with the exhibit, the Tate unveiled a one-off digital installation created in collaboration with American pop singer-songwriter Solange Knowles which addresses black female identity and was inspired by Saar.
It seems only now, at the age of 91, that Saar is beginning to receive the recognition she merits. On April 18, 2018, the International Sculpture Center will present her with the Lifetime Achievement Award, given in recognition of exemplary contributions to the field of sculpture. The Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco is honoring her with the Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award on October 28, 2017. At home in LA, CAFAM will honor Saar for an artistic practice committed to issues of racial equality, cultural inclusion and women’s rights, at the museum’s gala on October 14, 2017.
Saar’s next exhibit at her local gallery, Roberts & Tilton. will open in January, 2018. Although her important and eloquent oeuvre has enduring resonance, it’s both shocking and disturbing to consider its renewed relevance in an era of ongoing, even heightened, racial inequality in America. It’s a situation Saar continues to address today, through the act of creating art with grace and relentless determination.