Close Looking: Betye Saar – Not Easily Expressed
By Shantay Robinson
Betye Saar’s career took off in the 1970s in an environment fraught with issues. Civil Rights legislation was being enacted and women collectively advocated for their inalienable rights. On the one hand, there was the burgeoning feminist movement that wasn’t wholly welcoming to black women. And, on the other hand, there was the Black Arts Movement where black men were central figures. Betye Saar was working and living in Los Angeles where assemblage was the predominant art movement.
In “Keeping Time in the Hands of Betye Saar: Betye Saar: Still Tickin,‘” Ellen Y. Tani writes, “Assemblage describes the technique of combining natural or manufactured materials with traditionally nonartistic media like found objects into three-dimensional constructions.” Artists like Noah Purifoy, John Outterbridge, and David Hammons were her contemporaries who were doing this work. Though she was adamant about civil rights and women’s rights, Saar didn’t take to the streets to protest. She put her anger, determination, and voice in her artwork.
Saar was born and works in Los Angeles, California. Having lost her father early in her life, she was raised by her mother and extended family. She started taking art classes at Pasadena City College, continued to UCLA, then attended graduate school at California State University Long Beach, University of Southern California, California State University, Northridge, and American Film Institute. Though she received her bachelor’s degree in 1947, she didn’t go into the arts right away. She worked as a social worker first. She began graduate study in 1958.
In the 1960s, Saar began collecting negrobilia, including Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom, and Sambo artifacts that she eventually incorporated into artworks. In 1972, she completed The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, which she is most known for. It incorporated portions of marketing and advertising memorabilia depicting African Americans in stereotypical ways. The assemblage is made in a shadow box with a figurine of Aunt Jemima toting a broom and a shotgun. It might be the revolutionary agency Saar gave the black woman with this artwork that has made people look at her work with an extra degree of interest.
In one hand, Saar’s central figure, a very dark woman with bright red lips, holds a broom and, in the other, she holds a shotgun. The mammy is smiling in the picture as the white baby wails. The back panel of the shadow box is plastered with a smiling corporate Aunt Jemima image from the pancake mix brand. This artwork is radical because the mammy figure that it represents is meant to be docile and kind; she cares about the white family before her own. She allows white people to feel safe in her presence. But here Betye Saar gives her a shotgun.
Saar’s early art is said to be autobiographical.
Jessica Dallow in “Reclaiming Histories: Betye and Alison Saar, Feminism, and the Representation of Black Womanhood” writes:
“Saar’s early autobiographical art suggests an awareness of issues such as identity, media, and process that surrounded the aesthetic and that her contemporaries were experimenting with in their work, even though she has never overtly admitted such a connection.”
Though she attempted to forge a connection with the white feminist artists working in Los Angeles during the 1970s, she, like so many other scholars and artists, found that they weren’t very supportive of black women. In tandem to the feminist movement was the Black Arts Movement where she was more readily accepted, but black men were more visible. Black male artists in Los Angeles were doing assemblage. Though The Liberation of Aunt Jemima might be her best-known work of assemblage, she continues to create assemblages today albeit on a much larger scale.
She created Gliding into Midnight, an assemblage that was featured at Miami Art Basel in 2019; it found a place in Betye Saar: Serious Moonlight, a 2021 exhibition of the artists’ work at the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami. The artwork, in the shape of a boat, features black hands reaching out from its vessel. The hands of the enslaved reach out from the vessel toward the heavens, for salvation. It’s all black and hanging from the ceiling. There is an illustration on the floor below the boat that depicts the belly of the ship packed with bodies. It is an illustration of African bodies held in a slave ship. There aren’t as many hands reaching out. Maybe these hands belonged to the ones who jumped ship toward freedom. The artwork is depicted under a purple light, as purple is reserved for royalty. We can assume that it lends to the mythology of African royalty. The pieces of the artwork, the boat, the hands, the illustration all come together to tell a story of the Middle Passage, a harrowing excursion for millions of African people. It was an experience that many of us couldn’t imagine ourselves surviving, but all of us are the survivors of.
Some of Betye Saar’s work comes from astrological and ancestral symbols that relate to her personal ethnicity, spirituality, and position as an artist and mother. But the works that really speak to us, and they do speak to us, are the ones when she’s considering the collective. In addition to The Liberation of Aunt Jemima and Gliding to Midnight, I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break stands out as a revolutionary work of art. This installation of simple domestic items like a bed sheet, ironing board, and iron tells a gut-wrenching story. On the white sheet that hangs from a clothing line, the letters KKK are embroidered. As we know, klansmen wore white sheets to hide their identities when they did their dirty work. And some of these klansmen hired black women domestics to iron their sheets. Ironically, the ironing board in the installation is shaped similarly to the slave ship. The image of the slave ship is embossed on the ironing board next to an image of a “mammy.” And the iron itself represents female labor, as many African-American women labored as domestics ironing clothes.
“Saar’s art history is a story worth telling: she became the second black woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974, she has had strong gallery representation for decades, she has showed new work regularly, and she has been included in major group exhibitions in addition to her solo shows.” —Ellen Y. Tani
Like her black female artist contemporaries, Adrian Piper, Faith Ringgold, Howardena Pindell, and Barbara Chase-Riboud, she remains relevant today because like them, she responds to important issues of the time in which she exists. Saar’s stories might be more literal than Adrian Piper’s. They may be more radical than Faith Ringgold’s. They aren’t as overtly feminist as Howardena Pindell. And her sculptures can be more didactic than Barbara Chase-Riboud. But some of her work overtly depicts the internal struggles that black people had to face when negotiating survival. This generation of women artists who are still working today gave us so much in terms of the narratives they shared. And the way they shared them is drastically different, yet their honor will surpass time.
The narratives that Saar offers in her work are timeless even as they happened in the past. We still experience the stories viscerally when we look at the artwork. We can imagine a domestic worker having to iron the sheets of a klansman who would inevitably go out at night to harm her family and friends. We can understand the feelings of a woman like Aunt Jemima, a mammy, who is forced to choose a white family over her own, which is essentially an act of caring for her own family. Those women who played the mammy role worked for the betterment of black culture while, at the same time, being castigated for their service. We can never know the identities of all of those who crossed the Atlantic, and those who jumped ship are lost forever. But in her artwork, we remember and experience them. We get a glimpse of the darkness they experienced.
Saar’s work will continue to be exhibited with the expectation that, through assemblage, she has arranged disparate parts to tell a cohesive story. Though our contemporary moment is fascinated with large shiny portraits of black people, the narratives that she shares through assemblage and installation tell us about the inner lives of black people in a way that portraits or paintings of black people can’t. We will continue looking to Saar to express the inner consciousness of black people in the ways that cannot easily be expressed.
Shantay Robinson has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.
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