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Reclaimed History

Betye Saar assembles society's discards into documents of its neglected culture.

December 07, 1997|Leah Ollman | 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.

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