“ELEMENTS of FIERCE!” interviews BETYE SAAR
1) At 84 years of age, you have witnessed many significant milestones in our countries rich history including our 1st Black President, Barack Obama. Which historical figure had the most profound effect on your life, and who do your admire most today?
“In the 70’s I started collecting derogatory images after Martin Luther King’s assassination and all the horrifying images that you saw on television, the hosings, the dogs, the lynchings, and all of that. In collecting derogatory images of blacks, which I felt perpetuated racism, I also found photographs of African-Americans and I started collecting those. I recycled them, empowering them as warriors to combat racism. I think the earliest image that I have using an African-American or a Black one was the derogatory one which was the liberation of Aunt Jemima. I created a series of artworks on liberation in the 1970s, which included the assemblage The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972).” 1
“If you were living during the time that they were producing these things, late 1800s, early 1900s, and that was the only image you had, you would have very little self-esteem because you were either a Fat Mammy, or Uncle Moe’s, or a Pickaninny. You were subject to all sorts of things being done to you, eating watermelon, sitting on a pot, whatever. So I wanted to recycle those to say we’re taking it back. We’re not going to exploit this imagery anymore. But in a way, it is exploiting it because it got attention. But then, hopefully, the other message is stronger than the original message.” 2
Betye Saar’s hero is a woman, Aunt Jemima!
2) You have worked with mixed media and collage for many years always finding whimsical ways to present poignant issues. Who are some of your favorite artist, and why?
“My interest in assemblage was inspired by a 1968 exhibition by Joseph Cornell.
Because of my impression with fairy tales and my big imagination as a child, I was also influenced by Simon Rodia‘s Watts Towers.” 3 “I witnessed being built during my childhood summers at Market in the city of Watts.” 4
3) Despite the Racism, Sexism, and Oppression that still exists in our society, you have overcome those barriers to fulfill your mission as an artist. What would you say are the ingredients to being a successful pioneering artist, and is there any other talent that you long to have?
“Be true to yourself and your own message!” 5
“My mission is to record our past, the way we were and what we have become.” 6
“As a child of the Depression in Los Angeles we didn’t have a lot of money so we made things for each other. My mother was a seam-tress, my grandmother was a quilt maker. So that’s just part of our heritage. We always did things with our hands. It just seemed like the normal thing to do!” 7 “Ever since I was a girl I was taught that nothing should go to waste. Dolls were repainted at Christmas. I learned to make do, use it up and wear it out.” 8
“My personal experience with racism has to do with public facilities. There’s a big park in Pasadena called Brookside Park and it had a swimming pool. The swimming pool was open to whites everyday of the week except Tuesday. Tuesday Black kids or any other race could use it because Wednesday they changed the water.” 9
“One of the things that I try to do, and I don’t know if I’m successful or not, because we are dealing with something you really can’t verbalize on. It’s about feeling! It’s about spreading the Spirit and that Spirit is Universal about caring. I can’t even verbalize what it is. I once had a really nice complement at a show. An older man came up to me and he said, “I never seen your work before, but I really like it. It…” and he starts beating his heart. You know like it touched him that way. That’s what I want my work to do to like reach out and grab you somewhere!” 10
“Titles are important to me, and that the piece tells a story is important.”11
4) Humor is Healing, and we definitely get a sense of that in your work. Please, share with us other elements that contribute to your Longevity, and your idea of “Perfect Bliss?”
“My Secret Heart Is Ageless!” 12
“It’s not all Brain… Heart and Spirit have a lot to do with it for longevity.” 13
“I deal with the visual thing and the emotional thing!” 14
“If you had seen the things with the Riots and the Freedom Marches in the South you feel really vulnerable. I was a Mom with two, three young children. (On September 16, 1952, she married Richard Saar, a white American of German decent who worked in art design and manufacturing. The couple had three children, Lezley, Alison and Tracye, before they divorced in 1968.) So I couldn’t go down and march. Some of my neighbors sons went down South to march and protest, and I have friends who played music with those Freedom Rides. But, what can a woman do that’s home with three kids? My art is my weapon!” 15
“I walk looking down all the time. I go to flea markets and garage sales, but when you see my studio you know I gotta enough of everything. I always start out saying I’m only going to use the things that I have here, I’m not gonna buy anything new. It’s all about recycling! But, materials give me my ideas.” 16
“Right after my divorce, I wanted a job so I went to the theater and said I would like to design costumes. Then I got this job as an assistant designer because one of the things that I had learned growing up was sewing. My mother was a seam-tress. We made doll clothes. We made our own clothes. I like the theater. Part of my little assemblages are like little theaters, little sets with the characters in them and everything. Yeah, that’s how I earned money.” 17
5) You have met some amazing people in your lifetime. Which motto, or words of wisdom have carried you through on this journey, and who shared these words with you?
“I was invited to receive an Honorary Doctorate Degree from a school were I taught, Otis Art Institute. They had not allowed in the 40’s Black students to come. I said in my talk that Success Is The Best Revenge! I got to be the teacher there and to stand on the stage and say success is the best revenge and to be successful I had to be back to my grandmothers thing to “Be the best you can. Get yourself educated, and be the best you can.” And also follow your heart and your spirit, and my spirit told me to be creative.” 18
“It is my goal as an artist to create works that expose injustice and reveal beauty.” – Betye Saar
(New York – October 20, 2010) Michael Rosenfeld Gallery is pleased to present its fifth solo exhibition for the artist Betye Saar (American, born 1926.)
Betye Saar: CAGE, A New Series of Assemblages & Collages
This ambitious installation of twenty-one mixed-media assemblages and seven collages represents four years of intensive studio work by the eighty-four-year-old Californian. Over the years, Saar has collected various cages from flea markets, yard sales, and antique shops; these ordinary household objects now comprise the foundation for a series centered on forms of containment and confinement. In Saar’s art, the cage is a signifier of physical incarceration and a metaphor for social, psychological, spiritual, economic, and historical exclusion. But, consistent Saar’s affirmative outlook, the cage is also a bold symbol of resilience and survival. The assemblages and collages in Betye Saar: CAGE also share with her other works a global perspective interlaced with the artist’s personal interest in metaphysics, magic, mystery, legends, and superstitions. The questions of repression, disenfranchisement, and resistance that dominate the lives of many people around the world are fused with lessons from US history, African spiritualism, and the rich visual traditions of Afro-Diasporic art.
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated color catalogue with an essay by noted scholar and professor George Lipsitz. In his essay, Lipsitz states:
“In the different works that Saar presents in Cage, inanimate objects evoke action and motion. Her ideas and arguments “move along,” propelled by birds that do not fly, banjos that do not play, ships that do not sail, cotton that does not grow, and servants who do not serve. Large figures in small cages symbolically rebuke a society where too many people are locked up in jails, locked out of opportunities, locked into habits they cannot break, and locked on to pursuits that will not make them happy. Through ordinary objects salvaged from the activities of everyday life—empty bottles, washboards, children’s toys, and mirrors—Saar reminds us that people can be imprisoned just as surely, just as securely, by desires, stories, and ideas as by stone walls and iron bars.”
Catalogues are available for purchase at;