In A Renegade History of the United States, author Thaddeus Russell makes a bold suggestion about the end of slavery: he hints that it wasn’t a moment of celebration for all African-Americans. Emancipation was a beautiful dream, it’s true, and the concept of racial equality a dazzling vision, as well. But like much social change in America, none of it happened purely overnight. True social change would take time and cultural evolution. It would be fair to say we are still in the process of evolving.

Assemblage artist Betye Saar captured the journey for many African-Americans, and the cultural viewpoints projected onto them—especially black women—with her work in the late 20th century. Saar was part of the black arts movement and has been actively working from her home base in Los Angeles since the 1970s.

Of late, there has been a surge of new dialogs on race, not just in the United States but also in places such as Paris (and other parts of Europe), South America and Africa. The talks have less to do with slavery, these days, but everything to do with class, privilege and tolerance. The time is right to reexamine Saar’s work, to reflect and decode its meanings, some of which may have shifted over time. Still Tickin’, a retrospective of Betye Saar’s work in assemblage, opens at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA) at the end of January.
“The show happened because a curator in the Netherlands that was working with Saar needed a partner,” Sara Cochran, interim director and curator at SMoCA, says. “We got involved at that point. Obviously we knew and loved the work. We had an opening in our schedule and knew this was a good fit.” Still Tickin’ showed through November at the Museum Het Domein in the Netherlands. It was Saar’s first solo museum show in Europe.

Saar was part of the black arts movement and has been actively working from her home base in Los Angeles since the 1970s.

Cochran describes the work coming to SMoCA as very strong, and she hints that among the greats of her generation, Saar may have been somewhat overlooked. She notes the successes of other artists who became active in the 1970s, such as David Hammons and John Outterbridge, who demonstrate a similar melding of assemblage, political and social awareness in their art practices. Somehow Betye Saar is less well known in art circles. With this retrospective and the recent show in the Netherlands, Saar seems finally to be receiving her due, Cochran says.

Betye Saar’s iconic piece “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” melds images from the kitchen-table syrup label with a smiling, round mammy doll that is holding in one hand a broom and in the other a shotgun. The cultural mash-up of housekeeper-meets-Black-Panther speaks volumes about the middle-century position of blacks in America. Saar has gone on record explaining the ways black people seemed still to be problematic in society after emancipation. “It’s like they abolished slavery but they kept black people in the kitchen as mammy jars,” Saar recently told the LA Times.

“She’s been collecting and using what would be considered racially derogatory material and talks about how strange it is that in the moment after the civil rights movement this kind of material came to the forefront,” Cochran says. The show is divided into three themed sections. The first deals with memory, nostalgia and the family; the second deals with mysticism and religiosity; and the third includes Saar’s racially and politically charged material.

Prior to the spring SMoCA show, Saar did a site visit. She worked with staff at the museum to pick out colors for the walls of the exhibition. Included in the color palette will be red, blue, purple and gray variations. Some of the concept and construction that Saar puts into her pieces can be site-specific. “She’s very hands-on with installations,” Cochran explains. “A lot of her work re-combines things.” Some of Saar’s pieces will be recreated with local, natural elements such as branches and twigs, Cochran explains. For one piece, Saar plans to integrate a tumbleweed, which may ignite an interesting vision of the black experience in the Southwest.
The next year holds more openings and additional celebrations of Betye Saar’s work. Saar will be featured at the Prada Foundation in Milan and will also be featured in an upcoming group show at the Tate Modern. Plans are underway for a giant retrospective for her next year. In July, Saar will turn 90 years old, and her gallery, Robert & Tilton, is planning a gigantic birthday party.

Betye Saar will visit SMoCA and be in conversation with Sara Cochran on January 28.
Betye Saar: Still Tickin’
January 30 through May 1