Saturdays Artist Series: Betye Saar, African-American Artist

Betye Saar: Visionary Artist - Kentake Page

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.

“Black Girl’s Window” (1969), at MoMA. The artist surrounds a silhouette of her head with floating moons and stars; an etching of a lion, her birth sign; and a skeleton alluding to her father’s death.

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…

The Artist of the Week is Betye Saar.... - Studio Art Quilt ...

QUOTES

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.

The artist in her studio in 1970, with “Black Girl’s Window.”
(The artist in her studio in 1970, with “Black Girl’s Window.”Credit…Bob Nakamura, via Roberts Projects, Los Angeles)

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)

THANKS!

15 comments

  1. Sheree · 8 Days Ago

    I take your point. But it’s probably hard to appreciate what she may have gone through at that time. Another most interesting post, thank you. This isn’t an artist with whom I’m familiar either with her or her work.

    • Francisco Bravo Cabrera · 8 Days Ago

      Greetings Sheree. I am glad you liked it and understood. I am trying to focus on artists…especially female artists…that are valuable to Art History and that have not had the recognition hey deserve because of the Male dominance of the art world, or the dominance, in general, of those who would only promote artists that they have made an investment in…thanks so much! Have a lovely weekend!

      • Sheree · 8 Days Ago

        So true! Thanks for standing up for female artists.

      • Francisco Bravo Cabrera · 8 Days Ago

        If you look back on art history, it would seem as if before the XXth C. women did not paint! And they bloody well did! They were the daughters of painters, the wives of painters and some, like the one I will feature in a forthcoming Saturday, had her husband as helper in her studio, and she lived in the XVIth C. My word!

      • Sheree · 8 Days Ago

        Look forward to it.

  2. Brad Osborne · 8 Days Ago

    A great addition to the series, Francisco! I love her art. The simplicity masks the underlying meaning of the symbolism and association to things of the past. But the longer you look at her work, the more you see. Like the sculptor, the power of her art lies not only in what is seen, but what is not seen. It surprises me to think that, after the education she received at notable universities, she still struggled to be recognized for the artist she was. Thanks to you she will find more fans today! Well written, my friend!

    • Francisco Bravo Cabrera · 8 Days Ago

      Thank you Brad, as always, I really appreciate your replies and admire your insight. Yes, there is so much to be seen and discovered in her work. She is very spiritual and a lot of her work reflects her spirituality and quest for the mystic path (I think)…she is highly recognised and her artwork is in many collections and museums but you still don’t hear her name as much as you hear the names of Koons, Hirst and Banksy…all male “artists” whose work is rubbish, in my opinion. Her work is real art and should have more recognition. The sexism and racism is very prevalent in the art world of today and I am making an effort to highlight (as much as I can) female artists because it seemed that there were none, except for the “token” ones, i.e. Frida Kahlo and Yoko Ono, two that I have very little respect for as artists…Take good care and enjoy the weekend my friend!

      • DougInNC · 7 Days Ago

        Artemisia Gentileschi, from the Caravaggio school in the XVIth C., has piqued our interest in this household. She offers very bold depictions of events. While, perhaps, “… it would seem as if before the XXth C. that women did not paint …” a few ‘painted bloody well.’ 🙂

      • Francisco Bravo Cabrera · 7 Days Ago

        She is a very interesting artist and personality…I look forward to exploring more of her…

  3. Francine Hamelin · 7 Days Ago

    Thank you for this discovery…

    • Francisco Bravo Cabrera · 7 Days Ago

      You are very welcome Francine, I am so glad you discovered her as she is a magnificent artist. All the best!

  4. DougInNC · 6 Days Ago

    Betye Saar is in the blog! I am impressed that you have continued this series with purpose. You said in a comment/reply on 9 May, the series debut, that you intended to devote a post to this artist (ref: https://eretxa.wordpress.com/2020/05/09/an-artist-life-chapter-1-louise-bourgeois/). I was warmed to her personality by an enjoyable 8-minute Christine Turner documentary emanating from two film festivals, Sundance and SXSW (South By Southwest). That doc is available via the NY Times and maybe other sites.

    • Francisco Bravo Cabrera · 6 Days Ago

      Thank you Doug, and yes, I will be continuing the series as there are so many more great artists out there that art history has refused to recognise as they should be. I will look for the documentaries as I did like her work very much! I look forward to seeing more of your sunsets and/or sunrises coloured so majestically by the sands of the Sahara. I remember seeing them from Florida as well when I lived there. Take good care and all the best!

  5. Rebecca Cuningham · 5 Days Ago

    Thanks for bringing all these women artists to light!

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