Bette Saar is a California artist who explores her African American heritage in several media: printmaking, collage, sculpture, assemblage, and installations, which incorporate literature and theater into her art. Her artistic inspiration began in the 1930s when Betye visited her grandmother in Watts, Los Angeles and watched Simon Rodia construct his Watts Towers. From him she learned that “You can make art out of anything.”
Saar graduated from U.C.L.A. with a major in design and later enrolled at Cal State Long Beach to get her master’s degree. She did social work and then moved into the design field. In 1952, she met and married – and would later divorce – the ceramist Richard Saar. They had three daughters, Alison and Lesley, both of whom are relevant, contemporary artists, and Trayce, a writer.
In 1967, she saw an exhibition of the works of Joseph Cornell, who was known for box assemblages of scavenged objects. In similar fashion Saar – after a career in design – turned to assemblage, often acquiring kitsch objects at flea markets and garage sales and transforming them into art. Assemblage was a tool for her to express her rage, beginning with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1972, she created a breakthrough work “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” a small assemblage in which she subverted a ‘mammy’ figure and armed her with a rifle and a grenade. She says, “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.” Her liberated Aunt Jemima is presented in a shrine-like box in the form of a happy ‘mammy’ holding a broom and shotgun with an image of a black fist rising up in front of her. “She was a symbol for both black civil rights and for women’s rights.”
In her 1972 work, “I’ve Got Rhythm,” Saar wrote racist headlines on part of a metronome and placed a black skeleton on its pendulum. One of the headline’s reads: “Lynched After Refusing to Dance on White’s Command.”
Saar’s 1973 small assemblage “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima: Cocktail” consists of a green glass wine jug with a homemade Aunt Jemima label on one side. On the other side is a black power fist. Stuffed inside the bottle is the red-and-white ‘mammy’ kerchief which is the fuse of a potentially explosive Molotov cocktail.
Her constructions evolved into her installation works in the late 1970s which delivered social and political messages, influenced by her discovery of African and Haitian art. She learned about the ways Haitian people conveyed their beliefs in Vodun and magic into their art. She began to replace European symbols with African ones and included personal mementos because they were charged with previous life.
Her work can be seen in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983 at The Broad in Los Angeles. Two exhibitions of her prints and notebooks will be seen in the fall of 2019 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Her work is in the permanent collections of more than 60 international museums, including MoMA, Los Angeles’ MOCA, and LACMA.