Her work seems to link generations of the past with those of the present. In 1989 she said: “I can no longer separate the work by saying this deals with the occult and this deals with shamanism or this deals with so and so…it’s all together and it’s just my work.”
She studied design at the University of California in Los Angeles. This was the career for most black women interested in the arts in a society ripe with sexism and racism. She studied printmaking and her prints mainly represent aspects of spirituality, cosmology and family.
She was later influenced by the work of Joseph Cornell whose work mostly consists of arranging “found objects” into assemblage boxes. She began inserting her prints and drawings into window frames. Her most relevant one is from 1969, Black Girl’s Window.
In the days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, (1970’s), Saar’s response to what she saw as racism, fetishisation and eroticisation of black women by reclaiming the female body, which she thought of having dignity and poise, as her aunt Hattie had. She resitsed primitivism and also the white feminist movement as it refused to look at issues of race. Saar unites, in her work, black power, spirituality, mysticism, and feminism.
This is evident in her Black Girl’s Window, which is an assemblage piece created from an old window. Within this frame she has painted the silhouette of a girl that is pressing her face and her hands on the glass. There are nine smaller window panes above her head, each displaying various symbols and images. There are moons, stars, a howling wolf, a sketched skeleton, an eagle with the word “love” across its chest, and a tintype woman.
However, after becoming more radical in her work, she created what has become her best known oeuvre, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima in 1972. She turns Aunt Jemima into a warrior, carrying a hand granade and a rifle…
A personal connection to the artist and to her art…
“To me the trick is to seduce the viewer. If you can get the viewer to look at your work of art, then you might be able to give them some sort of message.”
Her work caresses the familiar and investigates the unknown…
“It may not be possible to convey to someone else the mysterious transforming gifts by which dreams, memory and the experience become art, but I like to think that I can try.”
Reference The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (from Frieze magazine, 2016):
“I found a little Aunt Jemima mammy figure, a caricature of a black slave, like those later used to advertise pancakes. She had a broom in one hand and, on the other side, I gave her a rifle. In front of her, I placed a little postcard, of a mammy with a mulatto child, which is another way black women were exploited during slavery. I used the derogatory image to empower the black woman by making her a revolutionary, like she was rebelling against her past enslavement”
In an article from the New York Times I read that Betye Saar was born in the Watts section of Los Angeles (California, USA) in 1926. Her family was very mixed, African, American, Irish and North American Indian (First Nation Peoples or Native Americans as they say in the US). In the article they publish a poem that she has written and I will reproduce here as well:
My roots are tangled…
A blend of black, white and red,
I am labeled Creole, mulatto, mixed, colored in every sense.
Enslaved by the ‘one-drop-rule’
But liberated by the truth
That all blood is red.
For me it is important to note a few items of interest. Betye Saar was born Betye Irene Brown on July 30, 1926. Her father was Jefferson Maze Brown and her mother Beatrice Lillian Parson in Los Angeles, California. Both her parents attended the University of California, Los Angeles. In fact, that was where they met. After her father’s death, (1931), was when Saar moved to Watts (in Los Angeles). Later she and her mother moved to Pasadena, California. That was when she lived and got to know…and admire…her maternal great-aunt Hattie Parson Keys and her husband Robert E. Keys. Saar received a B.A. in design in 1947. She went further, to graduate school to California State University, Long Beach, to the University of Southern California, California State University, Northridge, and American Film Institute. It was while in graduate school, that she met and married Richard Saar. She gave birth to three daughters: Tracye, Alison and Lezley Saar.
I just do not see the slave connection at all, nor the inability to climb the social ladder nor the discrimination…
I will post a separate photo montage video of Saar’s work with original music by AJA (www.cdbaby.com/cd/aja2)