Betye Saar’s Deeply Spiritual Works Reflect on Over 50 Years of Lived Black History
Portrait of Betye Saar in her studio. Photo by David Sprague. Courtesy of Betye Saar and Roberts Projects.
Betye Saar is living, breathing history. At 95 years old, she is an artist that has lived through and made work in the era of Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, the Black Arts Movement, the Vietnam War, and the Trump presidency. Saar’s phenomenal mixed-media assemblages bring together Black memorabilia, African sculptures, and a collage of found items in wildly imaginative arrangements that tackle issues of racism, sexism, and social injustice. She has seen, lived, and created for longer than some of the world’s most famous artists have been alive. And at long last, she is finally getting the widespread, canonical recognition she deserves.
Named among the most influential artists in 2020 by Artsy, over the past few years, Saar has been the central focus and sole subject of many pivotal exhibitions. In 2017, the historic traveling exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963–1983” organized by Tate featured many of Saar’s pieces alongside works by contemporaries like Romare Bearden, Faith Ringgold, Alma Thomas, and Charles White. In 2019, the MoMA showcased Saar’s prolific printmaking practice in “The Legends of Black Girl’s Window,” while LACMA presented the first-ever exhibition highlighting the artist’s sketchbooks in relation to her finished works. Saar’s current survey at ICA Miami, “Serious Moonlight,” showcases the artist’s rarely exhibited site-specific installations from 1980 to 1998. The show will travel to France later this year, followed by Switzerland.
Portrait of Betye Saar installing L.A. Energy at Frieze L.A., 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects.
Portrait of Betye Saar installing L.A. Energy, 1983. Photo by Glenna Boltuch. Courtesy of the artist at Roberts Projects.
Meanwhile, one of the most anticipated presentations at this year’s Frieze L.A. is a recreation of Saar’s monumental 1983 mural L.A. Energy, organized by Roberts Projects. Originally commissioned by the city 39 years ago, the joyous work featured a vibrant West Coast color palette and Saar’s signature collaged elements. The mural was torn down in 1987 to make way for new construction. “After two years of pandemic-related shutdowns, the energy of Los Angeles has returned,” Saar told Artsy. “I felt the perfect opportunity to re-create my 1983 mural.”
Prior to the recent recognition of her broader practice, Saar was best known for her work The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972). In it, Saar channeled the anger, rage, and the incredible loss she felt over the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into a seminal assemblage that defied white stereotypes of Blackness. By reclaiming the images of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, Saar underscored the way in which these racist caricatures and images of Black inferiority have embedded themselves in U.S. culture. The Liberation of Aunt Jemima emerged as a work of radical protest and racial empowerment.
Betye Saar, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972. Photo by Benjamin Blackwell. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects.
“This work allowed me to channel my anger at not only the profound loss of M.L.K. Jr., but at the lack of representation of and by Black artists, especially Black women artists,” said Saar. At the time, very few Black women artists received gallery representation, critical acclaim, or were afforded job opportunities to work as living artists. For many, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima became an iconic symbol for Black feminism; Angela Davis would eventually credit the work for launching the Black women’s movement.
However difficult the struggle for freedom has been for Black America, deeply embedded in Saar’s multilayered assembled objects is a celebration of life. Her work is imbued with the histories and lived experiences of those who came before her. They are at once spiritual, mystical, and deeply complex. “My practice has always been the lens through which I have seen and moved through the world around me,” Saar shared. “It continues to be an arena and medium for political protest and social activism.”
For the artist, objects—whether reused, repurposed or recycled—hold power, and the spirits of the people who used them remain in the work. “I still make art incorporating the same themes I started with: ancestry, mysticism, racial injustice, beauty, family,” said Saar. “I remain very inspired by materiality.
“I want people to really look at my work,” Saar continued. “The experience it triggers depends on the viewer. I would like for the viewer to experience an emotional response to my work. Whether positive or negative, it means I have reached them.”
Art history has often been notoriously slow in acknowledging the brilliance of African American and women artists and their contributions to culture. More often than not, these contributions have been intentionally denied or systematically erased. While Saar’s lifetime spans nearly a century, the art world has only just begun to recognize the full scope of her visionary work.
But for Saar, this fame is not important, nor has it ever been the goal. Instead, she is called to create. “I don’t make art to please critics or to make sales,” said Saar. “Creating the work is the most important part for me.”