New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) re-opened October 21, 2019, and among its exhibitions is the work of 93 year-old artist Betye Saar, who is known for her assemblage and collage works that encompass African-American identity, female empowerment, global culture, mysticism, personal history and racism. This is MoMA’s first exhibition of Ms. Saar’s work, which has spanned more than six decades.
It seems as if several nationally- and internationally-renowned art and history institutions have had a simultaneous epiphany about the importance of Ms. Saar’s contributions to the American art canon. Portions of her prolific works recently were exhibited at the New York Historical Society; were included in the international traveling exhibition, “Soul of a Nation,” and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has recently mounted a showing. There also have been exhibitions in the Netherlands and the state of Arizona.
Angela Davis has credited the work of Ms. Saar as sparking the Black women’s liberation movement, particularly the iconic “warrior” assemblage for which the artist is most widely known, “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima.” Ms. Saar once said the work was created in response to her anger about segregation and racism, and it changed the trajectory of her art practice. In an interview with Frieze Magazine, Ms. Saar said:
“My work started to become politicized after the death of Martin Luther King in 1968. But “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” which I made in 1972, was the first piece that was politically explicit. You could say I work with dead objects, with things that people have thrown away: old photographs, and so on. But my work is at the crossroads between death and rebirth. Discarded materials have been recycled, so they’re born anew, because the artist has the power to do that.”
Ms. Saar’s body of work, which has inspired many generations, reflects how African-American women artists have been attempting to carve out and own their own spaces, as noted in a Los Angeles Times article, “…trying to find room for themselves as women, as Black, as artists, as activists and how to manage and deal with all of those things.” Coupled with that, Ms. Saar continued to engage in her arts practice while raising three daughters, who also grew up to become successful artists – sculptor Alison Saar, painter Lezley Saar, and the writer Tracye Saar-Cavanaugh.
The admission price at MoMA has a chilling effect when it comes to access for many people of color. The one caveat—MoMA admission is always free for children under 16 and the museum offers free admission to all on Fridays, from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. This exhibition is important; Betye Saar deserves the largest possible platform and showcase. Her work exemplifies what feminism and other issues of art and activism looked like for Black women during the “Black Arts Movement” of the 1960s and 1970s, and it remains even more relevant today. The great news is, she’s still creating new works!
Ms. Saar’s spirit of perseverance; refusal to compromise her vision in the face of an art world that for decades did not recognize the value and contributions of her work, as well as her efforts to support and encourage future generations, makes her a true Champion (and Warrior) of the Arts.
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