SA: When you pick up a second hand object, your mind imagines how it was previously used. Do you see assemblage as a form of writing?
BS: Yeah, I don’t collect everything. I am interested in personal things such as handkerchiefs or gloves that are really feminine. For male objects, I would collect a cigarette case, for instance. Most of the characters I create are from the past, before the 1940s. For this piece I collected dark things.
SA: It’s interesting you think intimate objects are feminine. Objects are asexual but we gender them.
BS: Pipes are kind of male. A different tailored handkerchief could be male. Unisex is fairly modern now, but objects used to be more masculine or feminine.
SA: That looks like me.
BS: Yeah. This is “Passé Blanc.” It is printed on Japanese rice paper with white leaves embedded in it, and she’s holding a white butterfly. This piece deals with racial invisibility and the cultural implications of blackness and whiteness. It’s a serigraph print.
Socially, there is a duality of black and whiteness in skin color. Many light-skinned Blacks tried to pass as White because whiteness offered more opportunities for education and wealth. This happened especially in the South—if you were light skinned, you had many more opportunities. Even during slavery, these people were enslaved, but they would be related to the plantation owner. They would work in the house and have certain advantages. But there is still the cultural element of blackness, even today.
“Someone asked, ‘How do you balance
being a mother and an artist?’ I said, ‘It’s the same.
They’re both about creation.’”
— Betye Saar
SA: So the other element of the black and white dichotomy is magic, often segregated into “black magic” or “white magic.”
BS: A Trickster is a figure in the occult who plays mystical tricks on people. It’s partly about voodoo and the black arts. They are visible and invisible. Every religion has the Trickster in it. There’s black or white magic.
SA: And there is the connotation that white magic is good and black magic is evil.
This is in the show because the Trickster passes as both. Sometimes black and white. Sometimes black or white magic. There’s also a cage in there! I incorporate other symbols I use, such as the clock and the astrological symbols. And the raven, which is the messenger between two worlds of good and evil.
SA: And life and death. Growing up, you always imparted to us that art was all around us in everyday life. How did you come to this?
BS: As a child, I was always interested in patterns, landscapes and nature. I saw it everywhere. I was interested in self-taught artists and folk artists and in particular Simon Rodia, the artist who created Watts Towers. He combined broken dishes and other objects, and maybe that’s my first imprint of installation art.
Recycling materials to make art is a form of narrative. Washboards were used for cleaning, perhaps cleaning sheets for the Ku Klux Klan. Who knows? I wanted to reinvent the unknown history of what those objects did. For instance, with “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” I wanted to take the derogatory image of the mammy and give her a handgun. I wanted to make her warlike and militant, to change how society interpreted that image.
SA: I remember in one interview you said you believed being an artist and a mother were one in the same.
BS: Someone asked, “How do you balance being a mother and an artist?” I said, “It’s the same. They’re both about creation.” You create your art, and you become creative in how you take care of your child. It’s not a big split of being a mother or an artist to me. I consider myself to be a holistic person and the two identities blend together.
SA: Most people think of motherhood as work.
BS: It’s all living. Of course if your kid is ill, you can’t work on a painting. You have to be practical about dividing your time with who needs it. But overall I approach motherhood as I do art.
The Man from Phrenology, 1965, Courtesy of the Artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer
Historical Photos, courtesy of the Artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California.
The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972, Collection of University of California, Berkeley Art Museum; purchased with the aid of funds from the National Endowment for the Arts (selected by The Committee for the Acquisition of Afro-American Art).
Courtesy of the Artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California
Someones in the Kitchen with Dinah, 2014, courtesy of the Artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer
The Weight of Whiteness, 2014, courtesy of the Artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer
Gris-Gris Box, 1972, collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Courtesy of the Artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer
Nine Mojo Secrets, 1971, collection of the California African American Museum, CAAM, Los Angeles, California
Essence of Egypt, 1972, courtesy of the Artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer
Game of Fate, 2016, courtesy of the Artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California. Photo: Brian Forrest