By Hilton Als
The artist Betye Saar lives less than two miles from the bars, billboards, and bustle of Los Angeles’s Sunset Boulevard, but her home, in Laurel Canyon, seems far removed from Sunset’s gleaming capitalism and packaged sex. Saar’s studio and house, where she has lived for more than sixty years—she is now ninety-seven—are dedicated to history, especially American history as it relates to Black women. In her work, that history is often told through pop-culture artifacts, which, in Saar’s hands, take on a witty poetic resonance—an aura—that they wouldn’t otherwise have. Just as Jasper Johns used the flag and beer cans to critique our ideas of the sacred and the disposable, Saar uses objects to address the power of the image in America. But her America is to the left of Johns’s largely male-oriented world. Her layered assemblages, which sometimes resemble the interior of a hope chest, are also filled with inquiry: into the nature of mythology, and specifically how and why we mythologize the Black woman.
Saar uses prefabricated pieces (Black dolls, Aunt Jemima paraphernalia, advertising images, and the like) to show us how women of color have been repeatedly treated as props—accommodating, beneficent characters—in the never-ending drama of race. These images rarely even hint at an interior life, but Saar makes that interiority manifest. Her seminal work, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972)—which the activist Angela Davis reportedly credited with sparking the Black women’s movement—is a box containing a smiling Mammy figure with a gun under each arm, ready to blow all those stereotypes away. In the installation work A Loss of Innocence (1998), Saar suspends a long white cotton and lace dress from a hanger above a child-size wooden chair; to the bottom of the gown she has attached labels with words such as “Pickaninny,” “Tar Baby,” and “Coon Baby”—epithets that not only besmirch innocence but remove the very possibility of it. What are children of color left with? The sense that no one, not even a loving parent, can protect them from a world of hate. Saar’s white dress, which looks homemade, brings to mind another frequent theme: women’s labor as a locus of creative ingenuity. Washtubs, jewelry boxes, sewing materials, buttons, and ribbons all appear in her art: she wants us to see how the world is constructed by the hands of invisible women who make it work.
Betye Saar, 1978. Photograph by Lezley Saar. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California.