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Art HERstory: Betye Saar


Art HERstory: Betye Saar

Art HERstory: Betye Saar

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Recycling, thrifting, and re-gifting are ways we find use of things someone else tossed aside. Assemblage is also an option. Ever heard of it? Me either. Researching artist Betye Saar (1926 – ) introduced me to the art-form of taking random objects found or collected and turning them into creative works. Her pieces are undeniably racially driven and take a look into stereotypes placed on African-Americans. Who knew a 3D collage of random objects could be so politically and socially powerful?

'Sambo's Banjo' (1971-2). The banjo box includes items such as a Sambo doll hanging from a noose, a slice of watermelon, and a photo of a burned African-American's body. Simply moving.

'Sambo's Banjo' (1971-2). The banjo box includes items such as a Sambo doll hanging from a noose, a slice of watermelon, and a photo of a burned African-American's body. Simply moving.

Betye began her art career with a formal education in design and printmaking. While attending UCLA and Cal State, Long Beach she became familiar with the artistic assemblages of Joseph Cornell via his 1968 exhibition. The Watts Towers also served as a source of inspiration for Betye. She watched them grow from knee high foundations to massive towers reaching 99 feet into the sky. Both Cornell’s sculptures and Sabato ‘Simon’ Rodia’s Watts Towers are examples of assemblages.

'Black Girls Window.' A very moving piece. Notice the pictures in each pane. They are all things a Black girl growing up in the 1960s would encounter and worry about on a daily basis.

'Black Girls Window.' A very moving piece. Notice the pictures in each pane. They are all things a Black girl growing up in the 1960s would encounter and worry about on a daily basis.

The 1960s were when Betye dove head first into her assemblages. Being of African, Native American, Creole, and Irish heritage, she was well aware of the stereotypes and racism in America. The presence of racism is what fueled Betye to construct her pieces. She began collecting images and items featuring stereotypical African-American figures such as Sambo, Aunt Jemima, and Uncle Tom.

'The Liberation of Aunt Jemima' (1972). This assemblage is Betye's most popular. It features a 'Mammy' character with e broom in one hand and a shotgun in the other. This Aunt Jemima is DEFINTELY liberated!

'The Liberation of Aunt Jemima' (1972). This assemblage is Betye's most popular. It features a 'Mammy' character with e broom in one hand and a shotgun in the other. This Aunt Jemima is DEFINTELY liberated!

The death of Betye’s great-aunt triggered a shift in focus when it came to art. Betye no longer wanted to create based of political and social issues, she wanted to dedicate her art to her family. She began to create assemblages that incorporated family heirlooms. She placed lockets, dried flowers, photos, and letters in coffin-like boxes to honor the idea of the family members lost and their memory.

'Friends and Lovers.' One of the pieces from Betye's dedication to family. The background of the assemblage is an old letter and the central items are family photos.

'Friends and Lovers.' One of the pieces from Betye's dedication to family. The background of the assemblage is an old letter and the central items are family photos.

Today Betye still lives and works in Los Angeles. She has two daughters, Lezley and Alison, who are both artists. Her lifelong dedication to art has earned her honorary doctorate degrees from California College of Arts, California Institute of the Arts, Massachusetts College of the Arts, Otis College of Art and Design, and San Francisco Art Institute.

Image Layout: Phaymiss


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