Conceived as an experiential space, Betye Saar: Ritual presents a selection of Betye Saar’s works spanning three decades organized under the unifying idea of ritual. The installation brings together collages and wall assemblages chosen for their reoccurring themes exploring the transformation of rituals and cultural symbols. The aforementioned wall works are ordered around a major historical work – Mti, 1973 – which takes its form as a freestanding altarpiece fusing together gypsy, Native American, and voodoo cultural symbols. Visitors are invited to participate in the work by placing a personal offering at the base of the work. The resulting exhibit aims to renegotiate the aesthicization of ritualized action, concepts of power and display, the transferal of installation as sculpture, and how agency simultaneously resides in the objecthood of art and its transmitted communicative qualities.
The ritual process of Saar’s work evolved tremendously since the late 1960s, and took its most concrete form in 1973 when she added the altar format as a receptacle or platform for other objects. “Mti, the first of these, later became a participatory event, not only providing a new type of object but also suggesting a new, expanded approach to experiencing that object".* This transformation of a work into a cumulative participatory event by 1977 was a key development in Saar’s practice, informing her use of space as the backdrop for larger and more immersive site specific installations.
First exhibited in 1973, Mti has had subsequent installations in both commercial and institutional spaces; as current conditions remain contingent on viewing the work, no two iterations are alike. Saar has long used her work as an organizing force for rites of passage, rendering visible and tangible the experiential. Aesthetic consideration for form underlines the placement of power in Saar’s works - which in turn underlines how viewers intervene and act upon the present. Through extending the invitation of accumulation to the viewer, the installation becomes a cumulative participatory event. This action puts the audience in the position of collaboration – not as passive viewers, but as active participants – which engages a deeper relevance of the shared repast and the creation of community.
As a progression of format, the altar-as-concept was the starting point to the implementation and exhibition of Saar’s personal and private interpretations of an African American experience, weighted with political and autobiographical implications. The profound intimacy of the altar form, reminiscent to her earlier boxes, speaks to the sublimation of the personal narrative into a shared experience.
Saar’s radical departure from conventional attitudes - where a work of art is attributed to one mind, and its evolution ceases upon leaving the studio – lends Mti its affective power and complex multiple meanings. Through each manifestation, the link between the work and site is redefined. As well as producing a performative effect, the temporary nature of the installation work changes its relation to both institutional platforms and traditional forms of artist practice. The intimacy of the composition and invitation fixes the piece simultaneously in a nostalgic past and aggregated present. In effect, the works on view are transferals of information, mapping the interplay between performance and memory.
There is a continuity between art and ritual. They are essentially connected, with art playing a similar role today to which ritual played in the past. Saar’s assemblage works begun in the 1970s utilize the accumulative process inspired by the tradition of African sculpture incorporating a variety of both decorative and power elements from its surrounding community. As a result, Saar’s orchestration of materials and techniques transcend the formal qualities of iconographical or symbolic signifiers, and transform the environments in which they reside in—and the people whom they engage with—into parts of the work itself. The end result outlines the importance of how Saar’s historical assemblages, as precursors of her present work, investigate concepts of the ritual and community, inherited traditions, and how objects retain the memories and histories of their owners.