Our next Artist You Need To Know is Betye Saar.

Betye Irene Saar is an African American artist who works primarily in assemblage creating artworks that are direct responses to her political and social environment in the United States. Saar is also a fine printmaker : the nature of her work has seen her described as a visual storyteller. She’s a groundbreaking artists who was integral to the Black Arts Movement in the 1970s (this group included significant artists like previously featured AYNTK Faith Ringgold, Adrian Piper, Howardena Pindell, and Barbara Chase-Riboud). As a prolific and integral part of this group, Saar “engaged [with] myths and stereotypes about race and femininity. Her work is considered highly political, as she challenged negative ideas about African Americans throughout her career; Saar is best known for her art work that critiques American racism toward Blacks.” (from here)

“I’m the kind of person who recycles materials but I also recycle emotions and feelings, and I had a great deal of anger about the segregation and racism in this country.”



Saar was born in 1926 in Los Angeles, California (her parents met while attending the University of California, Los Angeles). She lived in Los Angeles until her father passed in 1931 at which time her family relocated to stay with her paternal grandmother in the Watts neighbourhood of the same city. They would then move to Pasadena. From an early age, Saar was collecting objects and items that became the inspiration for a number of early assemblages. She initially was a social worker, but her interest in art became the primary focus of her career.



Saar took art classes at Pasadena City College, and later the University of California, Los Angeles (earning a B.A. in design in 1947). She had been awarded tuition from an organization that aimed to support minority students for higher education. Saar pursued graduate level studies at a number of institutions, including California State University (Long Beach), the University of Southern California, California State University (Northridge), and the American Film Institute.

“To me the trick is to seduce the viewer. If you can get the viewer to look at a work of art, then you might be able to give them some kind of message.”

Saar is perhaps most renowned for her works (produced primarily In the 1960s), when she was reconfiguring “images of Aunt JemimaUncle TomLittle Black Sambo, and other stereotyped African American figures from folk culture and advertising of the Jim Crow era. She incorporated them into collages and assemblages, transforming them into statements of political and social protest.” (from here)

Her artwork, though often informed by feminist issues, is rarely referred to as feminist art by Saar herself : she is also known for her statements and artwork around the racism within the ‘white feminist movement’ found in the United States and elsewhere in the West, and experienced some discrimination from this community over her career.



“An early work that stands out in my mind is Record for Hattie [1975], which is about my great-aunt Hattie Parson Keys. When she passed, I inherited her ephemera – notes, letters, dance cards, gloves, handkerchiefs – essentially her life’s mementos. I made the piece so long ago, but I think my process is the same to this day. I started with a vintage box and lay items of the same color inside. Choosing a color is often the way I conceive my shows, right down to the painting of the walls or the image I choose for the invitation. I layered things and moved them around, adding and subtracting until it felt like the work was complete. I felt that these objects had an energy, a spirit. That’s what comes from a used item – it still has a sense of how it was used or who had used it.” (from here)




“A work is done not only when I see it, but when I feel it. Works are in various stages of completion in my studio for a while – for years sometimes. It’s all a matter of waiting for the right thing to go into the right place. Fifty years after The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, Aunt Jemima herself was finally liberated. And yet more work needs to be done. Not much has changed since the 1960s. We’ve had a Black president and still the racial issues of today stem from the same ignorance and fear. I am sad to see history repeating itself yet again, but I am hopeful that truth and love and equality will prevail. Art is still my voice, still my way to protest.”

Saar’s artwork is represented in a number of important collections. These include the University Museum of Contemporary Art (Amherst, Massachusetts), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum of Modern Art (New York), Museum of Contemporary Art (Los Angeles, CA), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC),Studio Museum (Harlem, New York),High Museum of Art (Atlanta, GA), National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC), Philadelphia Museum of Art, Walker Art Center (Minneapolis, MN), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) and the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York City).



Saar has received a number of awards over her career. These include Wolfgang-Hahn-Preis Köln (2020), the Edward MacDowell Medal (2014), The Visual Artists Award from The Flintridge Foundation (Pasadena, California, 1997), several Honorary Doctorate Degrees (California Institute of the Arts and Massachusetts College of Art, both 1995, Otis College of Art and Design and San Francisco Art Institute in 1992 and California College of the Arts, 1991), Distinguished Artist Award (Fresno Art Museum, 1993), James Van Der Zee Award (Brandywine Workshop, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1992), John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (1991), J. Paul Getty Fund for the Visual Arts Fellowship (1990), and two National Endowment for the Arts Artist Fellowships (1984 and 1974, respectively).

She has an impressive exhibition record that can be fully explored here.

“I am intrigued with combining the remnant of memories, fragments of relics and ordinary objects, with the components of technology. It’s a way of delving into the past and reaching into the future simultaneously.”

Much more about Betye Saar’s work and life can be enjoyed here at The Art Story and here at her site.