MILAN — One of the aspects of being human that separates us from the other animals is our ability to use complex symbols. Instead of simply lying on the ground, keening in pain, we use language to express that we are hurt and need help, or hand signals if we can’t speak, and utilize that more modern abstraction of human labor — money — to compensate others for their efforts to rescue us. What first occurs to me when I see Betye Saar’s work at the Fondazione Prada is that she is a sophisticated symbol user, one who is so advanced in her comprehension of how cultural symbols work that she can pull them apart and reassemble them to turn their meanings inside out. She makes the quotidian totemic, and turns base, derogatory iconography into a tribute to the indomitable will of people who bear the historical weight of being black in the United States.
Rescue, resuscitate, heal — the work in Saar’s exhibition, Uneasy Dancer, does all of the above and thus makes me want to slip into the comfortable and easy analogy of Saar as a mothering figure. But the first work that she made that received focused public attention, in 1972, when she was 46, “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” is a caricature of that motherly figure — one that Saar armed with a rifle and a grenade. Don’t sleep; this mother will blow you the fuck up. The power of that piece is that it symbolically brings to the surface the ramifications of our glib traffic in these figurines that are often representative of our embedded perceptions of black people. Saar forefronts symbols of martial violence, thus getting at the underlying violence of the society that produces and purchases these objects. It can be difficult to perceive the violence that engenders them because it is not only physical; it’s often psychic, happening at the level of metaphor. This is where Saar operates, in the realm of the symbolic.
Saar has called herself a conjurer and that seems almost right. The work does indeed feel like a kind of ensorcelling, because all the action seems to take place on that other, allusive plane of reality. But the origins of the objects are quite plain, which makes her work, in a way, more accessible, and also makes it less appropriate to talk of her assemblages at the level of magic. The work Saar produces comes out of work. She puts together items she finds in garage sales and flea markets.
In this exhibition, I see the range of objects she’s often used over her 50-year career: watches, clocks, birdcages, boxing gloves, raw cotton, scales, violin cases, African masks, washing boards, puppets, bullets, windows, and always the jigaboo figurines holding their huge slices of watermelon and grinning their too-wide grins. They have long been part of her symbolic lexicon, which means to take apart the notions of blacks as equal to oppressed, worth less than others, disposable. But this survey brings together other concerns, such as relating her own family history, which happens in a back room. In this section, the collages are more personal, hopeful, even wistful. There are collages with pressed flowers, white gloves, sachets, locks of long and finely textured hair, a necklace with a key, folded fans. Here, I discover through notes and pictures that Saar had a Scottish grandmother. This room, where these intimate details are shared with the viewer, has a very different feel from the rest of the exhibition. It’s a caesura from the work that it otherwise asks me to do.
In Uneasy Dancer, which happens to be Saar’s first survey show in Italy, every piece feels like a request for the time and attention to decode it. In the front room, a framed image of a black girl riding an ear of white corn with the caption “grow white for extra profits” reads as an indictment. At the bottom of this image, a wooden cross section of a slave ship, the black bodies pressed together in the ship’s hold, gives the viewer a sense of where the profit originated. Two jigaboo caricatures flank the slave ship like bookends, suggesting where the story of the slave trade ended up.
My favorite work in the show is a small teal room titled “The Alpha and the Omega” (2013–16), which contains a related suite of individual works, including a suspended structure threaded with neon tubes and representing a ship. Below, a small playpen holds a collection of inflated balls, two empty chairs face each other across a board set up for an unfamiliar game, and two fancy birdcages sit quietly with entire worlds contained within them. This room is a bit more enigmatic and quietly serene. According to the gallery guide, the installation looks to represent the entire journey of a human life. “The Alpha and the Omega” also demonstrates that Saar can do more than manipulate racist icons; she can give you a glimpse of her internal life, tell you that she is ready for tomorrow to arrive.
It’s fitting to have her retrospective here in Italy, because, so the story goes, it was an Italian, Simon Rodia, who built the Watts Towers that first inspired Saar to begin making her work. Here, you need to spend time with Saar, decode her assemblages, and ask the questions she likely asked: how did we get here, and where do we go now?
Editor’s note: the author’s travel expenses and accommodations were covered by the Fondazione Prada.