Reclaimed History

Lah Ollmanis a frequent contributor to Calendar

The hands-- black, white and copper-colored--once served as glove-making forms. Now, they reach up from a carpet of tree bark as if striving, from the grave, to touch life again. Framed on either side by long lace dresses in an installation titled “Tangled Roots,” the hands represent the unknown ancestors of today’s African Americans, the progenitors of artist Betye Saar herself, who for the past 30 years has invested inanimate forms with vital, spiritual power. In her work, the absent made present is a constant.

“Tangled Roots” goes on view Saturday in an exhibition of Saar’s work at the California African-American Museum. A recent series of wall-mounted assemblages (“Personal Icons”), three “Spirit Chairs” made last year for Atlanta’s Olympic Arts Festival and a variety of other works will be included in the show.

Saar calls the current presentation of earlier works “resurrections,” in keeping with the way they were made in the first place, by reclaiming old photographs, fabrics, bottles, keys and bones and endowing them with new life in richly textured constructions, often in the forms of shrines or altars. Transformation is always heavy on the mind of the artist, 71, whose delicate features are capped by a playful streak of purple in her pale gray curls.

“For the last few years, I’ve been sort of reinventing myself,” Saar explains during the installation of her show. “In order to do that, you have to go through your history. I wanted to do a piece about what it’s like to be mixed.”

The black, white and red elements in “Tangled Roots” suggest African, European and Native American blood, she says, the three basic races that mixed in this country--and in her own family. While the installation pays homage to the unrecognized parts of her heritage, “there’s a kind of sadness about this piece too,” she says. One of her grandparents on each side was Native American, but she’s unsure what tribes they belonged to.


“In my generation, you didn’t ask your grandmother why so-and-so was a certain color, unless you wanted to pick yourself up from the floor. Those were questions that you just did not ask, so a lot of the cultural and ethnic origins of African Americans are lost.

“One of the motivations I have for doing pieces like this, and for making these nostalgic things, is that I don’t know all the details. If I have a family photograph, I will use it. That’s one way of preserving it. It’s not the oral history, but it’s the visual history.”

Memory, both personal and cultural, is a tangible medium in Saar’s hands. It clings, powerfully, to objects she has collected in Haiti, Mexico, Africa--remnants of folklore, history, occult practice and religious ritual. Her constructions come together via a stream of consciousness, a trust in the oneiric and the supernatural. Yet the work, composed as it is primarily of familiar, ordinary objects, is firmly rooted in the material world of social experience. When she incorporates old, found photographs of African Americans into her work, for instance, the images not only set a nostalgic tone, but their revival also serves a broader, corrective purpose.

“It’s about telling the history of African Americans,” Saar explains, “because during the time that those photographs were taken, the only images that were really out there were mostly derogatory images, like mammies and little black Sambos.” Part of the motivation in using ordinary portraits “was to say, ‘Hey, we had a regular life, we like to wear fancy dresses and put on a hat to go to church. We had lives, just like other people.’ ”

Saar calls her recent work subversive, but it is gently so, especially compared to her assemblages of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, steeped in the civil rights struggle and the feminist movement.

An L.A. native, Saar received her bachelor of arts degree in graphic design from UCLA in 1949 and, after starting a family, began to make prints. She had always been what she calls an eyes-to-the-ground “junky,” collecting beads, glass and other small treasures, but her attachment to found objects didn’t mesh with her art until 1966, when she saw an exhibition of Joseph Cornell’s surreal, highly personal shadowboxes at the Pasadena Art Museum.

Empowered by this introduction to assemblage--which echoed her childhood fascination with the rising Watts Towers--Saar shifted her energies from the printed page to the richly textured realm of the recovered object. She started to make her own, politically barbed assemblages, incorporating advertising images and kitschy, racist cliches, appropriating, altering and undermining stereotypes in a manner that has since become common practice among many younger African American artists.

“The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” (1972), a seminal work for Saar (not in the current show), fused her concerns for the twin scourges of sexism and racism into a concentrated, powerful statement of resistance. Positioning a figurine of the smiling mammy in the center of a shallow box, and putting in her hand not just a broom but a rifle, “I turned Aunt Jemima into a warrior,” Saar says.

Saar synthesizes a range of cultural and religious references within the formal harmony of each work, but in real space and time, the confrontation of different belief systems has not often yielded such elegance. An undercurrent of oppression, exploitation, condescension and violence lingers, like memory, just under the surface of her work, a shadow to its formal beauty.

In “Pause Here,” made last year for the Olympic Arts Festival in Atlanta, Saar transforms a wrought-iron garden chair into a palpable bank of sensory memories by wrapping its foliate seat and back with a collection of metal objects--keys, bells, a spice grater, numbers, letters and more leaves. Tucked in among the other shapes is a small medallion of Martin Luther King Jr., and mounted atop the chair, a metal cutout bird--"Jim Crow,” Saar says, a reminder of the conditions under which Atlanta’s black railroad workers toiled.

Christian icons, Buddhas, occult symbols and fetishes from various indigenous cultures mingle freely in Saar’s work. Those syncretic tendencies shine in the installation “Saints Sinners Shaman Seeking Solitude. Sanctuary Awaits.” An electric candelabrum flickers on a seance table, set between an African chair for the spirits and a shamanistic, Afro-Brazilian shrine. Overhead hangs a bedspring, hung with rosary beads and images of Jesus. A plastic skeleton laid out on the bed comes alive on the wall, in a shadow animated by the patterns of the spiral springs.

Saar has long integrated images from ancient cultures, particularly Egypt and Oceania, with more recent relics. In “Mojotech,” an eight-panel wall piece studded with radio parts and circuit boards, she focused on bridging the organic and the technological. The work was commissioned in 1987 by MIT’s List Visual Arts Center, where she had a monthlong residency.

“I was thinking, how can I really relate to what’s happening there, because I’m so much about people and feelings and organic stuff?” she recalls. “But I was inspired by the scene in the movie ‘The Gods Must Be Crazy’ where the Coke bottle becomes a ritual object. All the stuff they’re working on there, the technical objects, would be, in another culture, something that would be very magical, just like when Europeans went to Africa, shell casings and sunglasses and mirrors worked their way into the fetishes there.”

In spite of work like “Mojotech” and a new CD-ROM of her work (“Betye goes high-tech!” she says with a laugh), Saar spends most of her time looking back into the past rather than the future. She has made a number of altars and other works in tribute to her great-aunt and to her mother, including “Wings of Morning,” a shrine that visitors to the CAAM show can amend with their own memorabilia. Asked if she ever incorporates references to her own children or grandchildren into her work, she pauses as if slightly surprised by the suggestion. “No,” she finally laughs, shaking her head. “I’m still back in the nostalgic past, with people I don’t even know!”

Her three daughters, Lezley, Alison and Tracye, all live in Los Angeles and form a close-knit group. Her friend poet Ishmael Reed has gone so far as to pronounce that Saar and artists Lezley and Alison “form a school.”

“The Saars take the dust of things, and from this dust, create works of art,” he has written.

Both Alison and Lezley, who have shown extensively in L.A. and New York, also incorporate found objects into their work, but Alison’s work, Saar explains, “is rougher and cruder and bigger” than her own, and Lezley does more painting on her work, which is often encrusted with books.

On occasion, Saar and her daughters go to flea markets and thrift stores together, but “we’re not shopping for the same things.” When they do gravitate toward similar objects, they use them differently, she says.

Her own work reflects a determination to survive spiritually, emotionally and culturally within a society that tends to devalue not only the African American experience and the experience of women, but also the life of the spirit and the work of the hand.

“If I had two words to describe what my goals are in my work, they would be ‘mystery’ and ‘beauty,’ ” Saar sums up.

“This was part of the way I was raised. You were told, ‘God don’t like ugly.’ And you didn’t act that way either. I want to live my life and make my art to leave something that encourages people, that gives people something inside.”

“RITUAL & REMEMBRANCE / PERSONAL ICONS: THE RECENT WORK OF BETYE SAAR,” California African-American Museum, 600 State Drive, Exposition Park. Dates: Opens Saturday. Regular schedule: Tuesdays to Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Ends March 22. Admission: Free; parking, $5. Phone: (213) 744-2060.