Betye Saar's Portrait - image via

Betye Saar /   Betye Irene Saar

United States 1926

Assemblage Art

Betye Saar
Betye Irene Saar
United States
May 15, 2016

Betye Saar is an American assemblage artist best known for her artworks that address racism and stereotypes in America.Her legendary piece, called The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, confronted the myths related to the famous African-American female character depicted on the pancake syrup bottle. Saar is interested in combining the fragments of her own memories and historical facts with ordinary objects and technological components. Her work explores the American past and reaches into the future at the same time. In that sense, it forms a unique bridge able to address a variety of topics, such as female emancipation and black consciousness.

Betye Saar -Window of Ancient Sirens, 1979 - image via artist contact works design artist contact works design gallery gallery
Betye Saar – Window of Ancient Sirens, 1979 – image via

LA as a Center of Feminism and Art

Betye Saar is a native of California, who grew up in Pasadena during the turbulent times of the Great Depression. She was interested in visual arts already as a high school student and she took art classes at Pasadena City College. After she received a BA from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1949, she decided to pursue graduate studies, at California State University at Long Beach. It is important to mention that Los Angeles has been a very important influence and source of inspiration when it comes to Saar’s life. In the 1960s and 1970, LA was a melting pot of feminism, visual arts, and black consciousness. At the time, Saar realized that the artists have an amazing power to convert negative events into insightful acts of opposition or resistance. In the late 1960s, Saar started to obtain items which were called black collectibles. These items were caricatures of African Americans found printed on everyday objects, such as food packages and various posters. Especially after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, Saar aimed at recycling such displeasing caricatures into art pieces.

In the 1960s, LA was a melting pot of feminism, visual arts, and black consciousness

Betye Saar - The Phrenologer's Window, 1966 - image via
Betye Saar – The Phrenologer’s Window, 1966 – image via

Interest in Assemblage

Saar’s interest in assemblage was initially inspired by Joseph Cornell, who was one of the pioneers of assemblage in the United States. Her early work consisted of combining various found items placed within a frame made of boxes or windows. The items Saar has been using in her art point out at her mixed ancestry – African-American, Irish, and Native American. During the 1960s, Saar was collecting images of stereotyped African-American figures, such as Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom and Little Black Sambo and she incorporated these images into her collages. In such way, once stereotyped depictions of African Americans got transformed them into artistic expressions of political and social opposition. The Liberation of Aunt Jemima from 1972 is Saar’s most famous piece which addresses this issue. It is a mixed-media artwork in which Saar subverts the meaning of the stereotypical mammy figure of Aunt Jemima, by placing not only a broom but also gun into her hands. However, Saar’s artistic focus is not entirely related to the issues of feminism – in the 70s, she started exploring rituals of the African cultures, such as shamanistic fetishes. After her great-aunt died in the mid-70s, Saar made another different series of collages, which were more personal, since they were based on old family photographs and letters, as well as nostalgic mementos, such as dried flowers. In the early 1980s, Saar became interested in teaching fine arts and started working at the University of California and the Otis College of Art and Design. Around the same time, he work got transformed again and she began creating larger, site-specific installations, often inspired by mysticism and Voodoo tradition, as well as technological advances – for example, her later work combines computer chips with amulets and jewelry related to magical practices. Since then, Saar’s work has been continuously exploring realms of the technical and the spiritual.

Saar was collecting images of stereotyped African-American figures, such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom and incorporating them into her collages

Betye Saar - Sock it to 'Em, 2011 (left) -The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,1972 (right) - images via
Betye Saar – Sock it to ‘Em, 2011 (left) / The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,1972 (right) – images via

Awards and Honors

Saar has received a plenty of awards for her socially and politically engaged art. She won two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships (1974, 1984), as well as Flintridge Foundation Visual Artists Award (in 1998). More recently, in 2013, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, awarded her with the Distinguished Women in the Arts Prize. Saar has three daughters who are also visual artists and in 2005, the Ackland Museum at the University of North Carolina exhibited work done by Betye and her daughters, called Family Legacies: The Art of Betye, Alison and Lezley Saar. Saar’s work is the part of many museum and gallery collections, such as Detroit Institute, High Museum in Atlanta, Los Angeles County Museum and the Metropolitan Museum. She has been awarded several honorary doctorate degrees for her outstanding career that spans over four decades.

Saar was awarded several honorary doctorate degrees for her outstanding career

Betye Saar -Crandle of dreams, 2013 - image via
Betye Saar – Cradle of dreams, 2013 – image via

Addressing Racial and Gender Concerns

Saar’s pieces are of extraordinary value because they represent political, racial, religious, and gender concerns omnipresent in the modern Western culture, especially the American one. Her work is bridging cultural diversities and revealing marginalized and hidden histories of not only individuals and families, but also entire societies and cultures. Saar has thoroughly explored African less known religions and traditions, as well as the importance of everyday objects we handle since they preserve the memories and histories of the specific era.

Betye Saar lives and works in Los Angeles, California.

Featured image: Betye Saar’s Portrait – image via
All images used for illustrative purpose only.

YearExhibition TitleGallery/MuseumSolo/Group
2016Betye Saar @ 90Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary ArtSolo
2016Betye Saar: Still Tickin’Museum Het Domein, Sittard, NetherlandsnSolo
2016The Color Line: African American Artists and the Civil Rights in the United StatesMusee du Quai Branly, Paris, FranceGroup
2015Betye Saar: Still Tickin’Sharon Arts Center, Peterborough, NHnSolo
2015Selections from the Permanent Collection Museum of Contemporary ArtMuseum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2015Wonder WomenUniversity of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MNGroup
2015Witness: Art, Activism and Civil Rights in the SixtiesUniversity of Texas, Austin, TexasGroup
2015Produced Sentimental Object in Contemporary ArtGund Gallery, Gambier, OHGroup
2014Betye SaarSharon Arts Center, nPeterborough, NHnSolo
2014Betye Saar on the ShelfRoberts & Tilton, Culver City, CASolo
2014Witness: Art, Activism and Civil Rights in the SixtiesBrooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn Group
2014Shared Vision: The Myron and Anne Jaffe Portenar CollectionArthur Ross GalleryGroup
2014African American VisionsScripps College, Claremont, CAGroup
2013The Alpha & The Omega: The Beginning & The EndRoberts & Tilton, nCulver City, CAnSolo
2013Tapping the Third RealmBen Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2013Etched in Collective HistoryBirmingham Museum of ArtGroup
2011Red TimeRoberts & Tilton, nCulver City, CAnSolo
2011Walk - Through with Betye SaarCalifornia nAfrican American Museum,nLos nAngeles, CAnSolo
2007Americans Before and Behind the CameraDePaul University, L.AGroup
2006Extending the Frozen Moment Cage Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NYSolo
2006Object and David Hammons Body PrintsRoberts & Tilton, Los Angeles, CA Group
2006Betye SaarLos Angeles Municipal Art Gallery Barnsdall, Los AngelesGroup
2005Personal Icons Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NYSolo
2003Personal Icons University of Michigan Museum of ArtSolo
2002Personal Icons Princeton, NJSolo
2002Americans Before and Behind the CameraDe Paul University, L.AGroup
2001Object and David Hammons Body PrintsMorgan State University, BaltimoreGroup
2000Personal IconsnnMillikin University, Decatur, ILSolo
2000Uncommon ThreadsThe Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock, ARGroup
2000Collectors Show and SaleHerbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, NYGroup
1999Workers + Warriors: The Return of Aunt JemimaThe University Art Museum, University of New MexicoSolo
1999African American Art: 20th Century MasterworksMichael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NYGroup
1998Workers + Warriors: The Return of Aunt JemimaMichael Rosenfeld Gallery, NYCSolo
1998Workers + Warriors: The Return of Aunt JemimaGreenville County Museum of Art, Solo
1998Workers + Warriors: The Return of Aunt JemimaGreenville, SC Solo
1998Betye SaarDorfman Projects, New York,Group
1997Ritual and Remembrance The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Solo
1997The Tip of the Iceberg: A Response to New York MuseumsHudson River Museum, Yonkers, NYGroup
1996Visual Journey The Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, WASolo
1996Bearing WitnessArt Center, Des Moines, IASolo
1996Tangled RootsThe Palmer Museum of Art, Penn State College, PASolo
1996Hanging by a Thread Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NYGroup
1995Signs of the Times Saisset Museum, Santa Clara, CASolo
1995African American Art: 20th Century MasterworksStreet Level Photography Gallery and Group
1994LimboSanta Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica, CASolo
1994Photogenetic: Reviewing the Lens of HistoryWorkshop, Glasgow, ScotlandGroup
1993Betye Saar: The Secret Heart Fresno Art Museum, Fresno, CASolo
1992Signs of the Times Hypo Bank, New York, NYSolo
1992The Ritual Journey University of Hartford, West Hartford, CTSolo
1992The Art of Betye Saar and John Otterbridge22nd Biennial of Sao Paulo, Museum of Modern Art, Sao Paulo, BrazilGroup
1991Sentimental Souvenirs Objects Gallery, Chicago, ILSolo
1991500 Years: With the Breath of Our AncestorsCalifornia State University, Fullerton, CAGroup
1990Women and the Surreal NarrativeAncestors Municipal Art Gallery, Los Angeles, CAGroup
1988Sanctified Visions Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CASolo
1987Voyages: Dreams & Destinations Taichung Museum of Art, Taichung, TaiwanSolo
1986Sentimental Sojourn: Strangers & SouvenirsPennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PASolo
1986Among Africas/In America: Betye Saar & Jose Bedia The Banff Centre for the Arts, Alberta, CanadaGroup
1985Art Expressions in PaperSecurity Pacific National Bank, Los Angeles, CAGroup
1984Tradition and Conflict: Images of a Turbulent DecadeStudio Museum in Harlem, NYCnGroup
1983Betye Saar: PaperworksSouthwest Craft Centre, San Antonio, TXSolo
1983Return of the NarrativeHarlem, New York, NYGroup
1980On & Off the Wall: Shaped & Colored Palm Spring Desert Museum, Palm Spring, CAGroup
1980Elegant NightSecurity Pacific Plaza, Los Angeles, CAGroup
1975Betye Saar Scripps College, Claremont, CASolo