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The Continuing Legacy of the Mystical, Political Betye Saar

A 1977 documentary explores how Betye Saar’s mythic altars illustrate the personal and political implications of Black identity.

Betye Saar “Spirit Catcher” (1977), mixed media, 45 x 18 x 18 inches (Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California)

For decades, Betye Saar has stunned viewers with her altars devoted to Black spiritualities and liberation.

But in 2019, national museums are still inching toward granting her the institutional recognition she has long deserved. A traveling exhibition starting at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is planned for September 2019, while another at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is planned for October 2019. She is also featured prominently in Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963–1983, a popular international exhibition spotlighting artists who forged artistic communities across the United States. Currently, Saar’s gallery, Roberts Projects in Los Angeles, is screening a little-known 1977 documentary about the artist, Spirit Catcher: The Art of Betye Saaras it gears up for the 92-year-old’s artist increasing international attention.

As the documentary winds up with nostalgic 1970s music, it cuts to a swap meet, where you see Saar thumbing through trinkets. The clip provides an insight into Saar’s process of collecting, picking objects with intention and looking for charged items to use in her assemblages. “I can tell when a stand has something for me that I might use,” she says, intuitively. White folk musicians play on the outdoor stage, strumming banjos — an iconic symbol of Americana — while Saar prepares to craft a different symbol of American identity and tradition through her now iconic assemblage creations: altars to diasporic Black identities healing from Jim Crow’s physical and visual violence.

Installation views of a wall in the Betye Saar gallery at the Broad Museum’s Soul of a Nation (artworks pictured: “Rainbow Mojo” (1972), Mojo Handbag #1 (1970), “Nine Mojo Secrets” (1971), “Eye” (1972), House of the Head (1971)) (photo by Pablo Enriquez and courtesy of The Broad)

Before beginning her fine art practice, Saar first studied design and graphics, eventually finding her way to assemblage art after a visit to the Pasadena Museum around the age of 40. There, she encountered the assemblage creations of artist Joseph Cornell: small, box-like structures encapsulating found objects like maps, text, paper birds, and more, to create fantastical scenes. Feeling immediately inspired, Saar appropriated objects and images, and like Cornell, set up her own scenes in window and picture frames. Assemblage gave her the opportunity to craft worlds illustrating the personal and political implications of Black womanhood.

A Los Angeleno, Saar was continually influenced by the artistic community of Watts, a neighborhood known for its racial rebellion in 1965. In Spirit Catcher, she explains that the “Black revolution” and the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 actively politicized her work. She was a valued member of feminist artist spaces and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960 and ’70s; her found object sculptures are steeped in political, racial, religious, and gendered concerns. She explores mysticism, astrology (Saar is a Leo), and magical religious practices of the Afrodiaspora, formulating what she refers to as an “occult atmosphere,” translated not only in these mystical iconographies but in the haunting racial histories of her appropriated objects from Jim Crow, like mammy dolls and Sambo figurines.

“There’s something very old, and something very new at the same time about what she does. When you know Betye, and you start to really look into her work, you start to think that she escaped from one of the pyramids or something,” says John Outterbridge in the film. The prominent sculptor, community activist, educator, and first director of the Watts Tower Art Center continues: She’s just into a strong mystical quality, and somehow I think that she was a daughter to one of the pharaohs or something.”

Josine Ianco-Starrels, a prominent Los Angeles curator who passed away earlier this month, speaks only praise of Saar in Spirit Catcher. The curator says of her work: “It has a feeling of otherworldliness at times, it has a feeling of magic.”

Ten Mojo Secrets, 1972. Leather, fur, yarn, fabric, printed paper, photographs, acrylic paint, plastic skulls, poker chips, and chutney. 40 x20 x 2 in. (photo by Pablo Enriquez and courtesy of The Broad)

In the film, we watch her piecing together an assemblage of objects made by one of her daughters, Allison Saar (now a prominent artist in her own right), and things discovered in Marrakech, Morroco. Their placements come to her as inexplicable feelings guided by the energy they hold. “Sometimes, the things that I put in, I know exactly what they mean […] but then I always add something that I don’t really understand at an outer conscious level,” she says.

“Each item I collect I feel has a certain energy, from whatever it served as in its previous life,” Saar explains, saying that she has always been drawn to nature-oriented African and Oceanic art. She keeps the objects in labeled compartments, like teeth and feathers. She uses cultural objects, family artifacts, and heirlooms, reappropriating offensive, derogatory images to merge these disparate cultural realities into one consciousness — one that lives within her own heart and those of many other Black Americans.

At the end of a montage of her weighty work, we see Saar close her eyes after a heavy sigh; all of these visuals of racial violence and ancestral memories are inside of her, spinning through her head — an exhausting reality which she siphons into her altars. For someone to work with these traumatizing images day by day, you have to be spiritual and steadfast. Saar sits authentically in those identities.

“If I had been in her place, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to deal with them,” Ianco-Starrels explains of the intensity and necessity of Saar’s practice. “It was an important thing that she did. You can’t hide things that hurt you.”

Betye Saar, “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” (1972). Wood, cotton, plastic, metal, acrylic paint, printed paper, and fabric. UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, purchased with the aid of funds from The National Endowment for the Arts (selected by The Committee for the Acquisition of Afro-American Arts)

Saar identifies herself as a conjurer and recycler. She works with found objects, reappropriating racialized, racist objects and injecting power into them with radical symbols. She invigorates the stereotypical, historically racist figure of the mammy, a trope connoted with servility and domesticity and operating as a stand-in mother for children of white slave owners. She equips these figures with weaponry as a means of self-defense and rebellion against the political parameters shackling the mammy to servitude under white supremacy.

She is best known for her assemblages involving Aunt Jemima, a mammy figure still in popular circulation in the 21st century through the maple syrup brand of the same name, whose racist roots are often overlooked. Saar’s most famous and first portrait of the iconic figure is her 1972 assemblage, “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima.” This would be the piece that would propel her career infinitely forward.

She explains the piece, saying: “It was my personal way of reacting in anger to what was happening to Blacks and what had happened to Blacks.”

Aunt Jemima brandishes a broom, a marker of domesticity in her left hand, and a rifle in her right. Beneath her bosom, Saar has nestled an image of a similarly jubilant mammy figure, cradling a pale child in her arms, overlaid by a sculpted, starkly dark, Black power fist, with one nail manicured blood red. Aunt Jemima ads line the window box, and cotton, a symbol of slavery and its gains, lines the wooden frame. The mammies’ painted-on smiles juxtapose with their fierce, revolutionary symbology as radical women ready and able to overthrow their overseers and challenge their marginalized positions. In 2007, activist and scholar Angela Davis referred to “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” as the inception of the Black women’s movement.

“It’s like they abolished slavery but they kept Black people in the kitchen as mammy jars,” Saar told the LA Times in 2016. “I had this Aunt Jemima, and I wanted to put a rifle and a grenade under her skirts. I wanted to empower her. I wanted to make her a warrior. I wanted people to know that Black people wouldn’t be enslaved by that.”

Installation view of “I’ve Got Rhythm” (1972), “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” (1972), and “Sambo’s Banjo” (1971-72) (photo by Pablo Enriquez and courtesy of The Broad)

In 1973, Ianco-Starrels curated the exhibition Betye Saar: Selected Works 1964–1973 at California State University, Los Angeles. Roberts Projects says that much of that exhibition has been recreated in the Los Angeles Broad Art Museum’s current iteration of Soul of a Nation, which uniquely houses a gallery dedicated solely to Saar. Many of the precious works Saar speaks of, in detail, in Spirit Catcher, have been loaned to the Broad from institutions including Roberts Projects, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the California African American Museum, for their expansive look into the iconic artist’s career.

In Spirit Catcher, Saar calls “Sambo’s Banjo” an homage to the Black men who entered the entertainment industry as a “heavy survival mechanism.” Inside of a banjo once owned by a friend of hers, the artist decorated the case with a haunting and disturbing image of a lynched man. The whole enclosure is a coffin of sorts, a metaphorical nod to the social stranglehold white America held over Black men to perform sadistic whims of Black stereotypes.

“The anger that she might show in some of the work becomes pity, you know? And hurt,” Outterbridge says.

Betye Saar, “I’ve Got Rhythm,” (1972). Mechanical metronome with wood case, plastic toy, American flag pin, acrylic paint, and printed paper. 8.5 x 4.5 x 4.5 in. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Purchase with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee.

In the functioning metronome of “I’ve Got Rhythm,” Saar has placed a skeleton-like spirit on top of the American flag, ticking along. Inside of the musical structure are newspaper clippings; circled in red, it reads: “Negro lynched after refusing to dance on white’s command.”

“People would go to church after a Saturday lynching and they could never see the disconnection or connection,” Saar explains.

Here, as Saar’s words fade, folk music recalling that of the introduction plays again, as the metronome ticks — an ominous beat signaling impending doom.

Betye Saar, “Black Girl’s Window” (1969), Wooden window frame with painted pasted papers, lenticular print, framed photograph, and plastic figurine (via Sharon Mollerus/Flickr)

“Black Girl’s Window,” Saar says, is a self-portrait. “It tells about my past, present, and future,” she explains. “Inside of each pane, I put something that I felt had to do with my life.” Her complicated thoughts about destiny, fate, and the internal conflict of her Black and white ancestry are imbued in the imagery behind the black silhouette.

Despite what the public may see as an overdue recognition which is still rolling out, Saar sees it differently. She confidently muses in Spirit Catcher, speaking on the balance of motherhood and artistry: “There are a lot of people who feel really pressured into, like, making their statement about what they want to do with their life at a certain age limitation or time limitation. I never felt that I had to prove myself within a year or within two years. I think that’s why it seems like, to a lot of people, that my so-called success if coming late.” As the artist nears an impressive century on this Earth, we are only just being blessed with the wisdom that she has accrued over decades of parsing ancestral memories and diasporic collections. Her legacy has only just begun.

Spirit Catcher:  The Art of Betye Saar continues at Roberts Projects (5801 Washington Boulevard, Culver City) through June 15. The film was produced by WNET (New York Public Media) and directed by Suzanne Bauman. The documentary runs parallel to Soul of a Nation at the Broad Art Museum (221 S. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles), which continues through September 1. In New York, you can see the artist’s work in Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean at the New York Historical Society (170 Central Park West, Upper West Side, Manhattan) until May 27.

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