The Artist Who Made a Tougher Aunt Jemima Hasn’t Softened With Age

Calla Lily ArtArleen Solomon Rotchin3 Comments

Betye Saar has constructed searing narratives about race and gender including ‘The Liberation of Aunt Jemima' (1972).  In the late 1960s, she began collecting images of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom, Little Black Sambo and other stereotyped African-American figures from folk culture and advertising.  She incorporated them into collage and assemblages, transforming them into statements of political and social protest.

‘Bittersweet Bessie’s Song’ Betye Saar Showing Respect for Jazz

‘Bittersweet Bessie’s Song’
Betye Saar Showing Respect for Jazz

At 88 years young, she is still vibrant and actively reminding us that the stains of slavery and racism remain a bitter part of American history that will not go away.   Saar, a native Californian who lived through the civil rights movement, began using racial images after witnessing the 1965 race riots in Watts, the assassination of Dr. King in 1968 and the emerging women’s and Black Arts Movement.  By 1970, she had produced more than 20 pieces of politically and racially powerful work including her best known work, 'The Liberation of Aunt Jemima’. 

Saar has used photographs extensively in her work.  She is inspired by pictures that she finds at swap meets, garage sales, thrift shops and antique fairs.  She gets a lot of material sent to her and she does use them.  She enjoys the idea of using memories from others and when it’s time to create a project, she works her found objects with a new meaning in another context.   

‘I’m the kind of person who recycles materials but I also recycle emotions and feelings,’ says Saar.  ‘I had a great deal of anger about the segregation and the racism in this country.  I am intrigued with combining the remnant of memories, fragments of relic and ordinary objects with the components of technology.  It’s a way of delving into the past and reaching into the future simultaneously.’

Self-Window with Reflection (1970) Courtesy of Houseman Foundation

Self-Window with Reflection (1970)
Courtesy of Houseman Foundation

Saar’s ancestry is like her collages.  She is a mixture of African-American, Irish and Native American.  She married a white man of German, English and Scottish background creating another layer for her daughters.  The endless ebb and flow of racial identity is never far from the family’s art.

She is the mother of two artists, Alison Saar and Lezley Saar.  Daughter Tracye is a writer.

Lezley, Betye + Alison (1995)  Photo courtesy of Tracye Saar

Lezley, Betye + Alison (1995) 
Photo courtesy of Tracye Saar

In 2006, the San Jose Museum of Art presented Family Legacies, the first exhibition to examine the artwork of Betye Saar and her two artist-daughters Lezley and Alison.   The show provided the public with an historical understanding of how different generations of women use art to express changing ideas about gender, race and ethnicity.  

Family Legacies featured 36 objects, including mixed media sculptures, assemblages, collages and a collaborative installation created by mother and daughters.