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Betye Saar: Still Tickin’ On view January 30 – May 1, 2016 at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art

Leaves, butterflies, old photographs and handkerchiefs are ordinary objects…but can tell an extraordinary story. Through her many collages and assemblages that incorporate common objects together in artful ways, artist Betye Saar weaves narratives about mysticism and spirituality, celebrity, personal memories, and race and politics.

The Loss, 1977 Mixed media on handkerchief 8 3/4" x 9 1/2"


Betye Saar was born in 1926 in Los Angeles, California. She is known for her work in assemblage, a sculptural technique of combining diverse materials, often discarded or found objects, into a unified whole. Through her art, she explores African-American identity, spirituality and the interrelationship of cultures.

Betye Saar Los Angeles, December 2015 Photo: Ashley Walker; courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California


As a child, Betye Saar watched artist Simon Rodia as he built the Watts Towers from bits of ceramic, glass, found objects and cement. She called these towers “a fairy tale place�, and credits them with inspiring her to create her own art with found objects and mixed media.

The artist brought her own children to the Watts Towers: here pictured with daughters Alison and Lezley, circa 1960


Mysticism, Ritual and Magic Betye Saar began her artist career as a printmaker. In the mid-to-late 1960’s, her work began to shift from printmaking to assemblage, bringing a variety of objects together within a box or window frame. Much of her imagery and symbolism of this time is taken from Africa and a variety of religions and belief systems from different cultures.

Mystic Window for Leo, 1966, Mixed media in window, 14 1/4 x 17 ¾ in. Courtesy the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California. © Betye Saar

Wizard, 1972 Mixed media 13 1/4" x 11" x 1" (33.66 x 27.94 x 2.54 cm)


Many of Saar’s assemblages take the form of shrines, recalling an ancient African past. .

Notice the influence of the Watts Towers reflected in the form of Sprit Catcher

Nine Mojo Secrets, 1971 Mixed media assemblage 49 3/4" x 23 1/2" x 1 3/4"

Spirit Catcher, 1976-77, mixed media assemblage, 45 x 18 x 18� (not in show)


She creates free-standing, altar-like structures, incorporating elements from different places that represent visual traditions of spirituality among ancient cultures. This assemblage includes objects from India, Mexico and Africa. The art of assemblage is to unify diverse elements such as these into a cohesive sculpture.

Mti, 1973, mixed-media assemblage

The base of this assemblage uses a fabric printing block from India. The artist fashioned a fetish cat figure to stand in front of a circuit board diagram. What are some reasons you can think of why Saar uses technology with objects of ritual?

Guardian of Desires, 1988 Mixed media assemblage 10 3/4" x 7 1/4" x 2 3/4"


Celebrity In these collages, the artist pays homage to two African American women who made noteworthy contributions: Rosa Parks and singer Bessie Smith. Saar created a feminine representation of “how being a gentle person can have the same power as being an aggressive, assertive revolutionary”.

The Victory of Gentleness: For Rosa Parks, 1975, mixed-media assemblage (Not in show)

Bittersweet (Bessie’s Song), 1973, assemblage box (Not in show)

Singer Bessie Smith died in an automobile accident (1937) because racism prevented her from receiving medical treatment in time.


Bridge of Memory Saar’s work is often autobiographical, bringing out the importance of ancestry and personal history. The artist created Record for Hattie as a memorial for her aunt, and Mama’s Flowers* as a gift for her mother. What objects would you use to create an assemblage about a close family member? Record for Hattie, 1975, mixed-media assemblage

Mama’s Flowers, 1973, mixed-media collage (not in show)


The artist used other objects from her Aunt Hattie’s estate to create Smiles We Left Behind. Notice the glove on the lower left. Saar uses gloves in several pieces to suggest hands reaching from the past to the present and into the future.

Smiles We Left Behind, 1976 Mixed media assemblage 13.375" x 10" (34.0 x 25.4 cm)


Race and Politics At the age of almost 90 years, Betye Saar has lived through the rise of the civil rights movement, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Watts Riots. These events and others influenced her to create art that is socially and politically engaged, often addressing racial issues. In this assemblage, Betye Saar empowers this “Aunt Jemima� figure with the Tarot card Justice, transforming the figure from a subordinate figure of a housemaid into a representation of a strong woman with power over her destiny. Justice, 2011 mixed media assemblage


This christening gown evokes a sense of sweetness and purity. It hangs over a framed photograph of an African American child that rests on a small child’s chair. How do you interpret this artwork? Looking closer, you will see words sewn into the gown. These words are racial slurs, or extremely offensive names that have been used and should never be used to bully and demean children of color. A baptism, or christening ceremony, marks a person’s beginning of a new life aligned with religious beliefs. Does the addition of the slurs, or bad names to the christening gown change the message in this work, from purity and sweetness to something else? What might this baptism be about?

A Loss of Innocence, 1998 Mixed media tableau


What does it mean to feel the weight of the world on your shoulders? Saar uses scales in these assemblages to symbolize a weight, or heavy burden, that many Americans feel about the issue of racism. In The Weight of Waiting, a figure of an African American gentleman stands upon a scale. We see a crow resting on his head and a ship attached to the scale. We know by the scale that the man feels burdened. The crow represents Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation (separation) of African Americans from whites in public places in the Southern United States until 1965. The ship reminds us of how people were transported from Africa to the United States to be exploited as slaves. The Weight of Whiteness speaks about the burden of guilt and shame. Look closely; notice the cotton and notice the chains. If this artwork could talk, what would it say?

The Weight of Waiting, 2014. Mixed media assemblage, 20 × 6 ¾ × 5 inches. Courtesy the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California. © Betye Saar

The Weight of Whiteness, 2014. Mixed media assemblage, 14 × 9 × 7 inches. Courtesy the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California. © Betye Saar


We look forward to seeing you at SMoCA

Please visit www.smoca.org or call 480-425-5348 or 480-8744642 to book a tour. Registration must be made two weeks in advance.

Profile for Scottsdale Arts

Betye Saar presentation for smoca  

Betye Saar presentation for smoca  

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