A half century ago, L.A.-based artist and Black Arts Movement icon Betye Saar created assemblages that challenged racist and sexist African American stereotypes. To paraphrase a popular sign from this year’s many women’s marches: It’s hard to believe she still has to protest this stuff.
At 90, Saar has made a career of empowering the denigrated and vulnerable, most notably black women. Her pieces often depict mammy dolls in acts of defiance: Aunt Jemima, in Saar’s representation, is a warrior and revolutionary freed from her status as the face of a pancake mix. (In 1972’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, one of Saar’s most acclaimed works, the mammy stands in front of syrup labels, carrying a rifle in one hand and a broom in the other.) Washboards, too, are prevalent in Saar’s art. Since the ’90s and as recently as this year, she has turned the ribbed panels into emblems of struggle, each festooned with Jim Crow-era imagery. Nearly two dozen of them are on display in Betye Saar: Keep-in’ It Clean, which opens May 28 at the Craft & Folk Art Museum.
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Born in Los Angeles in 1926, Saar grew up in Pasadena but spent the summers with her grandmother in Watts. There she watched as Simon Rodia sorted through scrap materials and debris, carefully choosing pieces to construct his Watts Towers. Rodia’s methods, along with those of other assemblage artists like L.A.’s John Outterbridge and Noah Purifoy as well as New York’s Joseph Cornell, influenced the aesthetic that Saar is known for today. Her sculptures are in the collections of many major American museums, from LACMA and MOCA to the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This month’s CAFAM exhibition is the first West Coast survey of her washboard collages. As curator Holly Jerger explains, the assemblages are as much about poorly paid labor as they are about the determination to support oneself despite the income inequality that exists “historically and today.” Saar mines a collection of found objects and loaded imagery—photographic pieces, say, portraying black women at work or black men playing banjos—piled high in her Laurel Canyon studio and adds them to the vintage metal tools.
“Betye Saar is a griot,” says Karon Davis, cofounder of the Underground Museum art space in Arlington Heights. (She’s likening Saar to the traveling West African bards who were keepers of collective memory.) “Her assemblages are as rich as gumbo and will always be as sacred as our Southern hymns.” Saar might agree; she’s described her work as a way of “delving into the past and reaching into the future simultaneously.” In the sculptures lining the walls of CAFAM, relics of an unjust system are turned into a kind of incantation, the active and insistent variety that we might call dissent.