If you want to know 20th century art, you better know Betye Saar art. Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972) skewers America’s history of using overtly racist imagery for commercial purposes. The assemblage represents one of the most important works of art from the 20th century.
In the summer of 2020, at the height of nationwide protesting related to a string of racially motivated attacks at the hands of police against Black people, Quaker Oats “liberated” Aunt Jemima as well, finally removing a caricature of the Black mammy figure from its line of pancake mix and syrups after over 130 years, admitting to its offensive, racist underpinning. Uncle Ben was similarly “liberated.”
Looking for Betye Saar art? The Liberation of Aunt Jemima can be found in the permanent collection of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, in Berkeley, CA, presently closed due to COVID.
A revealing glimpse into Saar’s mind was presented at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York late in 2020 and early 2021. “Betye Saar: Call and Response” made history as the first exhibition to focus on Saar’s (b. 1926) sketchbooks and examine the relationship between her found objects, sketches and finished works.
This exhibition offered the first public opportunity to view Saar’s sketchbooks—illuminating, in the artist’s words, “the mysterious transformation of object into art.”
While the assemblages in the Morgan’s exhibit feature from later in Saar’s extraordinarily long career, echoes of The Liberation of Aunt Jemima are apparent.
“In the late 1990s, Saar made a concerted return to the image of the mammy in a group of works incorporating vintage washboards,” Rachel Federman, who curated the Morgan’s exhibition, told Forbes.com. “We have several of these works, and their corresponding sketchbook pages, in the show. Other works, like Serving Time (2010), extend the critique of The Liberation of Aunt Jemima to male figures and the crisis of mass incarceration.”
Betye Saar art emerged in the 1960s as part of a wave of artists, many of them African-American, who embraced the medium of assemblage.
Her creative process starts with a found object: a piece of leather, a cot, a tray, a birdcage, an ironing board. The objects she chooses are ordinary, used, and slightly debased—things most people would pass by, many acquired at flea markets and secondhand stores. After identifying a primary object that “calls” to her, Saar surveys her stockpile of other found materials for use in combination.
Once she has arrived at a vision of the final work, she “responds” with a sketch laying out her ideas for the finished piece.
Hence the show’s title, “Call and Response.” The objects call, Saar responds.
“The sketch is to remind me how [a piece] is going to look when I get it put together,” Saar has said.
Saar kept such sketchbooks throughout her career. She has also kept more elaborate travel sketchbooks containing exquisite watercolors and collages from a lifetime of journeys worldwide.
Betye Saar art beyond Aunt Jemima and sketchbooks
“Betye Saar: Call and Response” presents Saar’s sketches and corresponding assemblages alongside approximately a dozen of her travel sketchbooks. Selections cover a broad span of her career, from the 1970s through a sculptural installation made specifically for this exhibition.
The sketchbooks allow guests a peek inside of Saar’s creative mind, providing a level of intimacy with the artist not always available from finished works.
“Most of the sketchbooks were not created for public display,” Federman notes. “They are drawn roughly in ballpoint pen or pencil, and accompanied by notes, like a reminder to herself to order the printed labels for A Loss of Innocence (1998). The travel sketchbooks are more finished, but they chronicle her impressions of the places she’s visited; Saar is an avid traveler.”
The exhibit additionally displays collages from the Morgan’s collections that have never before been displayed. As a supporter of Saar’s work, the Morgan acquired a series of six collages in 2017 now on view in full for the first time. A Secretary to the Spirits (1975) is the outcome of an invitation by author and activist Ishmael Reed (b. 1938) to create a series of collages for his poetry book of the same name.
Saar’s input on the exhibition, organized by Carol Eliel at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was extensive throughout. Eliel worked closely with Saar to develop the checklist and Saar visited the Morgan in 2018, corresponding with Federman over the course of the planning for the Morgan’s exhibition. The two discussed the gallery design, colors and changes to the checklist which included A Secretary to the Spirits.
“Despite being assembled from found objects, Saar’s assemblages and collages are so expertly crafted and formally impressive that it can be difficult to imagine the process behind them,” Federman said. “The sketchbooks show her putting the pieces together on paper, trying out titles and sometimes rejecting them, or calling on a memory–like ‘an old blues song’–to guide her. Her process is both intuitive and formally rigorous, and the sketches provide a window.”
As the 94-year-old Saar and The Liberation of Aunt Jemima prove, her and her work are timeless.
“I’ve gained a greater sense of Saar as an artist very much of her time–the Black Power and feminist liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s played a formative role–but also one who speaks urgently to the times we are in right now,” Federman said.