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Betye Saar: the brilliant artist who reversed and radicalised racist stereotypes

In the 1970s, her art was so influential that Angela Davis credited it with launching the Black women’s movement. At 95, Saar is still creating work - and it is as arresting as ever

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Betye Saar by rocor, This image was marked with a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

When the artist Betye Saar learned the Aunt Jemima brand was removing the mammy-like character that had been a fixture on its pancake mixes since 1889, she uttered two words: “Oh, finally.”

Those familiar with Saar’s most famous work, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, might have expected a more dramatic reaction. After all, this was a piece of art so revolutionary that the activist and scholar Angela Davis credited it with launching the Black women’s movement.

In this 1972 assemblage piece, Saar took the brand’s familiar character and radicalised her – changing her from a racist caricature who delighted in serving her white enslavers to a woman determined to be free. Her Jemima had a broom in one hand and a rifle in the other, and in the space where an apron would wrap around her waist, there is a Black power fist superimposed over a postcard of Jemima cradling a pale infant.

Davis pointed out that, at a time when African American liberation was largely framed through a male lens, Saar’s image took on the race, class and gender constructs that affected Black women. The compliment from the activist still brings a smile to Saar’s face. Now 95, Saar admits that the corporate rebranding of Aunt Jemima, a development announced last year, pleases her, too. But she considers it a small step rather than a radical shift in racial consciousness.

The move “still doesn’t retire racism”, she points out, because it remains in “so much of our culture”. After all, “people are still murdering each other”. And had the murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer not set off a global wave of Black Lives Matter protests, it’s unclear that food labels and sports teams with racist mascots would have changed.

Challenging representations of African Americans, or, in some cases, their absence, has been a focal point for Saar throughout her six-decade career. In the 60s and 70s, she was part of the influential Black Arts movement that combined arts, activism and racial pride. Along with sculptors such as Noah Purifoy and John Outterbridge, she pioneered assemblage-style art – where found objects are made into a single work – which flourished in Los Angeles. By reframing, upending and expanding representations of African Americans, Saar’s art unpacks stereotypes and complicates Black identity.

Saar is certainly not finished with Aunt Jemima. She is talking to me from her kitchen in the LA home in which she has lived since 1962. The kitchen is filled with ceramic collectibles of the character. On her tile counter sits a real attention-grabber: a foot-tall replica of an Aunt Jemima syrup bottle covered in beads.

Saar was born Betye Irene Brown in LA. Her father died in 1931, after developing an infection; a white hospital near his home would not treat him due to his race, Saar says. Her family briefly lived with her paternal grandmother in the Watts neighbourhood of LA, then moved to suburban Pasadena to live with her maternal aunt and uncle. But Saar continued visiting Watts, where she saw the artist Simon Rodia working on the architectural structures known as the Watts Towers, which he started in 1921 and finally completed in 1954.

Witnessing Rodia use a hodgepodge of materials – concrete, wire mesh, porcelain, tile, glass and found objects – taught Saar that any item could be used to create art. Growing up, she loved drawing and painting so much that her mother would always buy her art supplies as gifts, while her sisters and brothers received bicycles and skates. Every once a while, she would protest. “Can’t I get a bike?” Saar says, with a chuckle.

She was fascinated too by magic and mysticism. “I had always been a child interested in fairytales and magic and things other than just ordinary life. So that’s where my creative imagery comes from in investigating cultures and dealing with how to make magic in the art,” she says.

Although much of the US was racially segregated during her childhood in the 1930s and 40s, her neighbourhood was mixed, with African Americans, Latinos and white people, while her own background includes African American, Native American and European heritage. She lived just two blocks away from a youth who would go on to make history: Jackie Robinson. In 1947, the athlete became the first African American to play in Major League Baseball. Seven years Saar’s senior, Robinson was not one of her playmates. “He was my paperboy,” she says. But she remembers how his success led to the relaxation of segregation policies in their town.

At the time African Americans were only allowed to sit in certain parts of cinemas or even visit only on certain days of the week, she recalls. “Athletics was kind of like the groundbreaker for racism and then entertainment,” Saar says. Art, she says, doesn’t have the same cultural reach, but that hasn’t stopped her from using her work to challenge inequality. Like Robinson, Saar attended Pasadena City College and the University of California, Los Angeles, where she studied interior design and graduated in 1949. She married the ceramicist Richard Saar three years later and went on to have three daughters with him: Alison, Lezley and Tracye.

Saar studied printmaking in 1967 after she saw an exhibition by the pioneering assemblage artist Joseph Cornell at the Pasadena Art Museum, inspiring her to create a work that would comment on race, gender and spirituality. In 1969’s Black Girl’s Window, her first widely acclaimed assemblage work, Saar used a wooden window frame to present a series of vignettes in the top half of the window and a silhouette of herself below. The images depict her parents dancing, her father’s death and the stars, sky and moon. With a nod to her astrological sign, Leo, embodied by a lion, and to her 1968 divorce, the work allowed Saar to work through her personal trauma and the grief she felt in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts rebellion – six days of deadly riots that began when a police stop of a Black motorist turned violent – as well as the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

A year later Saar accompanied the artist David Hammons to the Field Museum in Chicago for the National Conference of Artists. There, she saw a variety of African art and found the use of spirituality and organic materials – soil, feathers, wood – so inspiring that she made a trip to Lagos, Nigeria, in 1977. She subsequently travelled to Senegal as well as to the African diaspora countries Brazil and Haiti. During her travels, she scavenged for materials to use in her own work, linking the African and African American experiences together.

“Wherever I go, I say: ‘What’s the alternative religion?’ because every country has it,” she says. “There are lots of other people that believe in magic and they have their own religion, and I was just really interested in what they did and what their ceremonies were, but mostly what the visual images would be.”

Her interest in Aunt Jemima began when she was asked to contribute to an exhibition about Black heroes for artists of colour at the Oakland Museum. “I chose Aunt Jemima, because it’s a negative thing, and Black people were ashamed of that. I thought: ‘How can I make Aunt Jemima a hero?’ So, I took the image of Aunt Jemima as a mammy holding a baby and made a little box.

“That was the first piece, at least in California, where a derogatory image was used to switch stereotypes. That became my theme – taking the negative and making it positive.”

Through the 70s Saar continued to create works about her own life. When her great-aunt Hattie Parson Keys died in 1974, the elderly woman left behind family photographs, jewellery, papers and curios, which Saar turned into 1975’s Record for Hattie. The mixed-media work includes a compartmentalised case filled with jewellery, quilting fabric, sewing pins, a baby picture and a broken hand mirror. Spiritual garnishes – a crucifix pendant and a crescent moon and star – also appear. Full of mementoes and nostalgia, the assemblage piece managed to memorialise Parson Keys and move critics, with the New York Times in 1978 describing Record for Hattie as “one of the artist’s most beautiful assemblages”.

Saar also helped found the LA art collective Womanspace, which included artists such as Judy Chicago. In 1974, she co-organised a group show there to highlight the work of Black female artists. While African Americans showed up to support the show, Saar says that white women stayed home. This offered a wake-up call about how race divides women in the feminist movement. Today, she rejects the term “feminist” altogether. For those who see her work as feminist, she says: “That’s their business.”

Feminism has traditionally focused on issues such as getting women in the workforce that have little resonance for her, she says. “In Black culture, as far as I know, women [always] worked, women cared for husbands, women cared for kids, women taught.”

Her own mother was one example. “My mother was widowed quite young. She had three children, so she became a working mother. Part of feminism is bringing the woman out of the house – but my mother was always out of the house. So I never really had to deal with that. From childhood on, [I believed] that a woman did anything. You could become a nurse. You could become a doctor. You could do nothing. You don’t have to get married and take care of a man.”

In 1974, she received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship (an honour she earned again a decade later). And Saar has continued to rack up honours and awards for her work. The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York hosted a solo exhibition of her collage, assemblage and installation art in 1975, just three years after the painter Alma Woodsey Thomas became the first Black woman to get a solo show there. Saar was given the J Paul Getty Fund for the Visual Arts fellowship in 1990. In 2005, the University of Michigan Museum of Art organised a major retrospective of her art. Eight years later, the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA presented her with a Distinguished Women in the Arts award.

Why has Saar’s art sustained interest? “It’s good,” she says with a laugh. “And it’s made with good intentions.”

Her interests have also remained consistent. Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean, her 2017 solo show at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in LA, included an assortment of armed mammies on washboards. And her latest exhibit, Black Doll Blues – watercolour works on paper – addresses society’s limited perspective on African American identity. Using dolls that Saar has collected herself, it highlights the evolving portrayals of Black Americans throughout history.

Painting her doll collection gave her an activity she could do quietly at home as the first wave of Covid-19 swept through California last year. (Saar says she contracted the virus in December, but quickly recovered.) Initially she felt it was a departure from her focus on race and mysticism. “But then I read that the word ‘doll’ is derived from the word ‘idol’,” she says. “So, that goes right back to [my creative] source, that people made idols and they worshipped idols, and, then, people started to make little idols for children.”

In Black Doll Blues, Saar once again explores how dolls have been used to caricature and exclude African Americans. “When I was a kid, there were no Black dolls, unless maybe your grandmother made one or somebody made a rag doll,” Saar says. “It’s really interesting how deep racism is, how it affects even children.” In fact when she was growing up, representations of African Americans were so rare in popular culture that even stereotypical ones – such as in the US sitcom Amos ’n’ Andy, which started on the radio in 1928 – were cause for excitement.

“My grandparents – when that show came on,” says Saar, “they wanted everybody to be quiet to listen to that show, because before, we [African Americans] didn’t have any kind of public exposure. And even if it was derogatory, it was still some kind of recognition that we existed. Before, we didn’t exist, except as a maid or waiter or a field worker or a slave.”

In the sketchbook she has been painting in during the pandemic, Saar has painted a Jemima-like doll in vibrant watercolours against a backdrop of blue sky scattered with bright stars. It’s not finished, but it is as arresting as Jemima with a shotgun. She calls the image Black Doll in the Mystical Sky. It means that the mammy is “just not a servant”, she says. “She’s also a mystic.”

To me, Saar’s work always brings to mind the popular social media hashtag #BlackGirlMagic, which spotlights Black women’s resilience, giftedness and power. “Yeah, I have that reputation,” Saar says. That’s because her art “is not just like a regular landscape or still life or something like that. It’s mystical; it’s strange.”