She has drawn and painted, made prints and photographs and collages, but Betye Saar is best known for her assemblages bearing witness to the history of African Americans as defined by slavery and racial discrimination. Bold graphically and also intricate in visual narrative, her work focuses on the toxic effects of racism in all its forms. Yet, it also celebrates strength and resiliency, spirituality and, as her latest collages attest, familial bonds.
The eldest of five siblings, Saar was born in Pasadena in 1926 and, although widely traveled, she still calls Los Angeles home. “I have been on every continent except the Arctic and Antarctic,” she says, adding that she has an affinity for Southeast Asia and none for cold places.
Her Laurel Canyon studio is filled with countless objects waiting for deployment and reflects her wanderlust and eye for the eclectic. The latter may have been activated when she first watched Simon Rodia build his Watts Towers. During the 1960s, Joseph Cornell’s assemblages inspired her toward similar expression.
Sidestepping questions about struggles as an African-American and as a woman artist, she says she was, more or less, to the manner born. “I’ve been making art since I was a child. I was surrounded by it since my mother painted china and made jewelry and quilts,” she says.
The creativity genes have prevailed: Daughters Alison and Lezley are both acclaimed artists, and the youngest, Tracye Saar-Cavanaugh, is a writer. Even the grandchildren are artistically inclined. (Betye and Alison exhibited together in Similar Differences: Betye and Alison Saar.)
After graduating from UCLA in 1949 with a degree in design, she continued her graduate education at several LA-area schools and taught at what is now Otis College of Art and Design. A role model for African-American and women artists throughout her career, she received three honorary doctorate degrees and many awards of merit, including two from the National Endowment for the Arts and one from the Black Caucus. With an Art to Life Award on top of those, she jokes that she is running out of space for all of them.
At first, her work incorporated childhood memories and symbology alluding to the mysteries of life, including nature and the spirit world. However, after the death of Martin Luther King in 1968, she infused her work with the social criticisms she has become renowned for.
One of her seminal series is centered on Aunt Jemima, the black nanny of Southern folklore and the smiling image branding pantry staples. Among the chief examples of the series is The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972), an assemblage featuring the iconic nanny carrying a white baby while surrounded by a broom and a gun. “After the Martin Luther King shooting I got political,” she says, adding that it was then that she started to collect objects that have
derogatory meanings in relation to the black community. “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima is my icon. It deals with liberation of African Americans and with women’s issues in general,” she says.
ABCD Education (2001) is Saar’s testimonial to the power of words like “colored” and “darkie” and evidences her ongoing desire to produce work that is at once metaphysical and consciousness-raising.