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.
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. However she always found joy working in a print workshop, making prints. 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 – for 40 years – acquired kitsch objects at flea markets and garage sales and transformed them into art.
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.
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 is in the permanent collections of more than 60 international museums, including MoMA in New York, Los Angeles’ MOCA, and LACMA.