Women in Art: Betye Saar

I’ve actually mentioned artist, Betye Saar, in a previous post. Many historians and critics discuss her in conjunction with Faith Ringgold due to the similar nature of their artistic message against racism and sexism, the shared motifs they use within their artwork, and the fact that they are contemporaries, popping up every so often within one another’s stories. Ringgold acted as a champion for Saar in the 1970 Whitney Annual. Saar deserved to be in the show, and Ringgold made sure the museum knew it. Thanks in large part to Ringgold’s contributions Saar (and the other sculptor Ringgold supported, Barbara Chase-Riboud) became the first black woman artist to show in the Whitney Museum. 

I bring this story up again just because I find it so impressive. The first black woman artist to ever show in the Whitney, a major museum. You can already tell that Saar’s work is going to be fantastic.

Saar posing with three of her works

Saar is a master of collage and assemblage, repurposing stereotypical images of black Americans in advertising and popular culture. She began to collect these images in the 60’s, no doubt influenced by the race riots, the assassination of Dr. King, and the emergence of an artistic movement by black women artists.

In her most well known piece, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, Saar works to reclaim Aunt Jemima’s image. She’s taking a caricature of a mammy, a presentation of black women as stupid, docile, and happy to serve, and she’s giving that caricature positive rather than negative power. In fact, the show Saar submitted this piece to had invited artists to create work based upon their heroes. Saar decided to take a hurtful character and make her strong.  The Aunt Jemimas in Saar’s piece hold a rifle and stand behind a silhouette of a black fist. Saar is attempting to take the image of Aunt Jemima and make it empowering. In fact, Saar said of this piece, “My intent was to transform a negative, demeaning figure into a positive, empowered woman… a warrior ready to combat servitude and racism”.

"The Liberation of Aunt Jemima" (1972)

The way Saar is treating imagery throughout her body of work is particularly interesting when taking current events into consideration. Most members of the feminist blogosphere have recently been discussing reclamation (particularly of the word “slut” as seen in the Slutwalks spreading across Canada and the US). And in the same way that many worried that “slut” should not and can not be reclaimed, Saar worried that her piece would receive a negative reaction. She worried that the negative imagery would be too ill received to present.

But she did submit her piece. And people loved it. 

Here Saar speaks more about her most famous work. It’s only five minutes and it’s really very interesting. Thanks to the Visionary Project (a site which records the histories of black visionaries who have shaped America’s history) for this great interview.


But of course Saar created far more than just her most famous piece. Here are some more images of her work:

"Nine Mojo Secrets" (1971)

"Midnight Madonnas" (1996)

A Loss of Innocence (1998)

"Gonna Lay Down My Burden" (1998)

"Wot's Dat" (1998)

As you can see, images following the Aunt Jemima stereotype are woven through many of her pieces. If you’d like to see more of her work you can find a great selection here.

Later in Saar’s career, the artist explored fields such as her relationship with her great aunt, mysticism, voodoo, and technology. Saar combined some of these subjects to create altar-like shrines which suggested connections between the world of spirituality and technology.

"Guardian of Desires" (1988)

"Sacred Symbols" (1988)

"Lost Dimensions in Time" (1988)

Aspects of Saar’s work almost seem to resemble the shadow boxes of Joseph Cornell. Her assemblages seem aesthetically very similar to Cornell’s work. Of course, her assemblages tackle an entirely different subject than Cornell’s, but perhaps Saar drew inspiration from Cornell. If I had to describe her work to someone who had never seen it before I think I would call it somewhat of a blend between the imagery and themes of Ringgold’s work and the look of Cornell’s shadowboxes. Of course Saar’s work is entirely her own. It’s just interesting to think about how current and previous artistic movements influence the theme and appearance of an artist’s work.

If you’d like to learn more about Betye Saar I would suggest starting with SFMOMA’s Voices and Images of California Art project and then perhaps reading this npr interview.

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