Betye Saar on Finding Inspiration in Civil Rights Struggles and the Problem with Contemporary Art

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A crisp white sheet that's hung like fresh laundry using wooden clothespins bears three carefully embroidered letters: KKK. It’s placed behind a small wooden ironing board, its flat surface bearing the diagram of a crowded slave ship cargo hold. Nearby, a white dress hangs above a small chair holding the framed image of a child. Sewn-on labels with racial epithets circle the gown just above its delicate hemline.

They’re all works by Betye Saar, the 89-year old artist whose “Still Tickin’” exhibition continues through Sunday, May 1, at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. It features more than 100 works in various media, including lithograph, fabric, collage, neon, and etching. Most are mixed-media assemblage.

The retrospective takes its title from a sculpture eulogizing Saar’s late husband and spans six decades of her work. It’s curated by Roel Arkesteijn, curator of contemporary art at De Domijnen in the Netherlands, in partnership with SMoCA. The show originated in the Netherlands, but several works were added for its Scottsdale run.

Born in 1926, Saar has lived through quite the trajectory of American history. And it shows in her work.

“Art and civil rights are intertwined in my work because much of my art is triggered by political actions,” Saar says.

“The first experience I remember was when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated,” she says. “I had this anger and I didn’t know what to do with it.” Saar had three young daughters at the time, and says marching wasn’t an option.

But Saar found another way to express herself.

“I found a plastic mammy at a flea market,” Saar says. She used the figurine to create an iconic 1972 work called The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, which is not part of the SMoCA exhibition. But she’s also created works inspired by more recent events, including police killings of young black people such as Michael Brown.

Found objects have always been central to Saar’s art practice. “I tend to collect ordinary objects,” Saar says. “It started with windows, then washboards and cages.” But rather than seeking objects to address particular issues, Saar looks for objects that speak to her in some way.

“I look for things I respond to,” Saar says. “The searching is the fun part.” Her studio is filled with found objects such as clocks, chairs, and cages. “The materials give me the ideas and inspiration,” Saar says.

“Still Tickin’” features not only political works, but also pieces that are personal or autobiographical in nature, and works rooted in mysticism and metaphysics.

Saar says her fascination with the mystical has its roots in childhood, when she loved reading fairy tales. “Even now, I like fiction that deals with another side in a meditative or spiritual way.” But there were other influences, too.

Growing up in Los Angeles, she’d often walk with her grandmother past Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, comprising 17 monumental sculptures, while they were under construction. “Something magical is going on right here,” Saar recalls thinking at the time. “It really affected me.”

But the 1960s, with the decade's love-ins and metaphysical bookstores, also deserve some of the credit. “I was such a hippie,” Saar says.

When it comes to Saar’s autobiographical works, women play a central role.

When Saar uses a human figure, it’s most often a woman or a child. “My family is mostly maternal rather than male dominated,” Saar says. “I always felt equal in my family.”

Saar says sexism hasn’t been a big barrier to getting her own work shown, but she’s seen its effects in a wider context. Despite the fact that many curators and museum directors are women, she says, they still feature more male than female artists.

But she’s got other concerns about the contemporary art scene, as well.

“Contemporary art is mostly about fads and making money,” Saar says. By way of contrast, Saar says she favors exhibitions that “project a feeling” – something she seeks to achieve with her own work.

Her own favorites in this exhibition include a 1973 work of mixed-media floor assemblage titled Mti, which looks like an altar atop a raised platform. Visitors are welcome to place objects at its base, and Saar expects that some of their offerings will be recycled for future works.

"Betye Saar: Still Tickin’" continues through May 1 at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibition is included with museum admission, which is $7 for adults, $5 for students, and free for visitors age 15 and under. For information on the exhibition, related programs, or free museum hours, visit the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art website

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that The Liberation of Aunt Jemima is part of Saar's SMoCA Exhibition. It is not.

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