HAVE YOU HEARD OF BETYE SAAR?
Photo by Michele Mattei
Betye Saar, age 89, a native to Los Angeles, is known for her multimedia collages, box assemblages, altars and installations consisting of found materials. She was a late bloomer in the art world, creating her most famous piece at the age of 46 that launched both her reputation as well as a series of works that followed. That piece, “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” consists of a wooden box containing a smiling “mammy” doll carrying a broom in one hand and a shotgun in the other, placed in front of a series of Aunt Jemima syrup labels. According to an interview on NPR, the piece was about the way African-American women were treated as sex objects, as domestic soldiers. And it was about this particular woman's revolt to be free of that image. Saar said, "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. And so this series sort of evolved. And if I had to say what was my contribution to the art world and to the world in general as an African American woman, [it] would be this series."
Saar later became immersed in family memorabilia and began making more personal and intimate assemblages that incorporated nostalgic mementos. She arranged old photographs, letters, lockets, dried flowers, and handkerchiefs in shrine-like boxes to suggest memory, loss, and the passage of time.
Some years later, she began using a larger, room-size scale, creating site-specific installations, including altar-like shrines exploring the relationship between technology and spirituality, and incorporating her interests in mysticism and Voodoo.
“The concepts of passage, crossroads, death and rebirth have been underlying elements in much of my work. My art continues to move in a creative spiral. Much of my current work is about issues of race and gender; a return to my concerns of 1972 and The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. Mystery and beauty remain constant forces behind my creative energy. This is the energy that spins the spiral.”—Betye Saar, 2007
A recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships (1974, 1984), a J. Paul Getty Fund for the Visual Arts Fellowship (1990), and a Flintridge Foundation Visual Artists Award (1998), Saar is #3 on my list of 25 iconic African American artists.
Betye Saar “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” 1972 Assemblage
Betye Saar “Black Girl’s Window” 1969 Assemblage
Betye Saar “I’ve Got Rhythm” 1972 Assemblage
Betye Saar “Midnight Madonnas” 1996 Assemblage
Betye Saar “The Alpha & Omega” 2013 Installation