Interview by Sola Agustsson
Images by Sophie Caby
“Most of my shopping is done at second-hand stores.
There’s something about buying an object that’s been handled
by another person. It has the ghost of the person,
and I can create a new idea about art from these old objects.”
— Betye Saar
Born in Los Angeles, assemblage artist Betye Saar is one of the most important of her generation. Since the 1960s, her art has incorporated found objects to challenge myths and stereotypes around race and gender, evoking spirituality by variously drawing on symbols from folk culture, mysticism and voodoo. Saar’s work can be found in the permanent collections of more than 60 museums, including Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Sola Agustsson is a writer of fiction and cultural criticism. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Huffington Post, Flaunt, Bullett, Hyperallergic, Whitewall Magazine, Alternet, Salon, ArtSlant and others. An excerpt from her novel Pretend I’m Jesus appeared in Ishmael Reed’s Konch magazine in 2013. She graduated UC Berkeley and is currently working towards her M.F.A. in Fiction at Columbia University.
An exhibition of Betye Saar’s mixed-media works from 1966-2016, Black White is opening at Roberts & Tilton, Los Angeles. The show is the first in a two-part survey of Saar’s career. The name and work included in the exhibition interrogate language—how the words “black” and “white” figure into ideas of race as well as their symbolism apart from it.
When my grandmother turned 90 this year, our family created a tributary artwork that incorporated various symbols she uses in her body of work. It was a garden sculpture loosely based on her piece “Black Girl’s Window” (1969), a female figure surrounded by our copper engravings of symbols including the Siren, the Eye of Horus, the palmistry hand and other common motifs in her work. It seemed fitting to repurpose her iconography in our collective work, as her assemblages recycle everyday objects and metaphysical symbols as well as her ancestor’s possessions. Now a nonagenarian, Betye Saar continues to create artworks with just as much ferocity, drawing on the same themes of race, mysticism and gender from her earlier work.
Betye Saar’s exhibition Black White, the first of a two-part survey of her work, opens at Roberts & Tilton, Los Angeles.
Sola Agustsson: Your work deals with recovering memories through everyday objects. What is your relation to objects? How do you find your materials?
Betye Saar: I’ve been collecting things for so long. Every once in awhile, I look out for something alien. But I usually do it by category, searching for a specific object I want. When I find myself attracted to a material that is new, sometimes I end up starting a new series without knowing it.
SA: Collecting is kind of a way our family bonds. When we have a phase or interest, everyone looks out for objects that relate to it.
BS: You are just attracted to certain things, and people know to be on the lookout. I got a box today from a friend that was filled with Black derogatory images. That’s an ongoing collection for me.
SA: Your brother recently died, and you created a new piece, “Tears Are Not Enough,” about his death. Can you elaborate on this?
BS: I did not initially intend this piece to be about his death. That was unexpected. When I was making my new series, I thought, “Tears Are Not Enough,” what a sad title, and later realized why that title was so sad. It didn’t foretell his death, of course, but it predicted my emotions about his passing. A lot of my works are about sadness, which comes from the premature loss of my father and my aunt’s death. The materials I use are also dead, secondhand materials which have been discarded by their original owner. By combining them, they seem to carry the emotions of those who used them before me.
“What can you do when you see that
violence and racism on television? What do
you do with that rage and negativity?
Sometimes people don’t know what to do with it…
I made ‘The Liberation of Aunt Jemima.’”
— Betye Saar
SA: You did that series Record for Hattie which incorporated secondhand materials to memorialize your aunt.
BS: When my great aunt died, she left me a trunk filled with photographs and hats and gloves and I started putting them together in assemblages. I interpreted my memory of her through those assemblages. I very rarely buy new materials. Most of my shopping is done at second hand stores. There’s something about buying an object that’s been handled by another person. It has the ghost of the person, and I can create a new idea about art from these old objects.
SA: How do you feel about making intimate artworks about your family?
BS: I find that a lot of the personal pieces I’ve made for family or friends are a means of expressing grief. When I got the trunk from my aunt, it was sad for me to get rid of those possessions. But it was also a gift for me to recycle her things and tell stories. Sometimes I used her things, such as her old autograph book, in works that weren’t about her. The pieces that are about my family I do not sell, I keep them in my family. They are personal.
SA: But they are made public.
BS: I show and share them in public places. But I don’t want to sell them. I have other pieces that are strong that I don’t want to sell. When my grandchildren turn 21, I give them an important artwork to remember me by.
SA: For the Prada exhibit in Milan, Uneasy Dancer, you speak of the “creative spiral” of life, rebirth and death. How does this manifest in your life and work? Is it a means of processing your experiences?
BS: The “creative spiral” can be interpreted in several ways, but it mainly has to do with how I recycle symbols and objects. When I was a printmaker, I used a lot of metaphysical images pertaining to palmistry, astrology and phrenology. I moved on to using photographs in my collages, but I would still incorporate a hand print, palm chart or astrological signs. I didn’t eliminate these symbols, I recycled them in a different series. I also recycle useful objects, such as washboards and serving trays to interpret my feelings about slavery. Cages were about incarceration. Racism is a cage that still prevails. My scales series came up with the recent police murder of many young Black men, to address how racism still prevails in 2016.
SA: Do the scales also relate to police brutality? In a way, the justice system “weighs” the lives of these men.
BS: They are political pieces about the notion of the weight of racism. One is “The Weight of Whiteness,” because racism doesn’t just affect the victim but also the person who holds the prejudice. They have the weight of hatred and dislike. Of course they do not suffer as much as the person whom the racism targets. When there were so many murders of young Black men in the last few years, it seemed like an epidemic. It prompted the Black Lives Matter movement.
SA: What do you think of watching the graphic videos of those murders? Do they perpetuate trauma?
BS: What can you do when you see that violence and racism on television? What do you do with that rage and negativity? Sometimes people don’t know what to do it. Like for example, the man who killed the policemen in Dallas. He woke up one morning and was filled with rage, and what he did with his rage was murder people.
For me, my rage started with the assassination of Martin Luther King. When the Civil Rights Movement was just beginning, there were violent and peaceful expressions. When he was murdered, I didn’t know what to do with that rage. I made “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima.” This scales series comes from my rage about the murder of Black males. Not only the rage of their murder, but that these killings go unpunished. The murderer of Trayvon Martin went free.
SA: You use a lot of the derogatory images in the cage series as well.
BS: The structure of the cage itself is a structure of contained freedom. A bird can move and see out but the bars prevent it from experiencing real freedom. Those derogatory images are still part of our country’s past which fabricated these images. They depicted Black people as less than human.
“In Western culture, death is
depicted as black. But in African culture,
death is represented with
the color white. Bones are white.”
— Betye Saar
SA: Your new Black White show at Roberts and Tilton is about the dichotomy of lightness and darkness and the racial undertones language that pertains to color. Does the concept of lightness and darkness in death relate to that?
BS: In Western culture, death is depicted as black. But in African culture, death is represented with the color white. Bones are white. The show Black White is a selection of works from the 1960s to the present. It’s more of a retrospective of the different phases of media. A lot of the works are collages and would be considered more abstract. But most of the works are pertinent to racism. In the new series, I use a lot of dominos and dice, which represent the game of life, the playing-pieces of living. The assemblage is about a game, such as the game of fate. In this particular exhibition, the main colors of the pieces are black, white or both. It’s about color, mood and race.
SA: How did you choose the works for your new series for the exhibition? Was it mostly aesthetically informed?
BS: I picked the works from a variety of series that deal with black and white imagery and incorporate different symbols I’m drawn to. But it isn’t just about the binary of black and white, it’s also about the reference of darkness and lightness, and the different implications of that.
SA: This piece “Madame Noire” reminds me of your other series dedicated to your aunt Hattie, as it incorporates lots of feminine possessions, except this one is of a fictional character.
BS: This piece is from a series I did about the shades of skin color in Black people. A lot of the inspiration came from my aunt Hattie’s collection of photographs. The shades range from a light cream-colored woman in “Passé Blanc” (pass for white), to the much darker colors of black skin. “Madame Noire” is from that. This assemblage is of things that would be in her (Madame Noire’s) life. I imagined the feather, pin and glove would be part of her costume. Each one is a portrait of a person. But it could pertain to many women’s lives.
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