Celebrating Black History Month: Betye and Alison Saar

The mother and daughter pair create work that explores African American heritage and culture. Betye Saar’s work is more provocative, while Alison has used her mother’s influence to address more spiritual concepts pertaining to their joint history.

Betye Saar, The Long Memory (from NMWA 10th Anniversary Print Portfolio), 1998; Serigraph on paper; 14 1/4 x 11 5/8 in.; Museum purchase: funding provided by the Kasser Foundation

Betye Saar was born in Los Angeles in 1926. Always interested in art, Saar graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, with a BA in design in 1949 and received an MFA from California State University, Long Beach. Trained as a sculptor, printmaker, and painter, she began making assemblages after seeing an exhibition of works by Joseph Cornell, the father of assemblage. Saar’s work references her African American, Native American, Irish, and Creole ancestral history and mystical ideas and folk traditions. In the early 1970s, Saar joined a black arts movement that inspired her to create more politically driven collages. She began to incorporate imagery of stereotyped African Americans in folk culture and advertising, such as Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom, and Little Black Sambo. The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972, features Aunt Jemima as a mammy figure wielding a shotgun in one hand and a broom in the other.

Betye Saar has explored technology, voodoo, memory, loss, the passage of time, and various political statements. She lives and works in Los Angeles and has work in the High Museum in Atlanta, the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Alison Saar was born in Los Angeles in 1956 and raised in Laurel Canyon, California. Growing up, Alison assisted her artist mother and art conservator father with artistic tasks, visited museums, and read art books with her sister Lezley. Saar received a BA from Scripps College in Claremont, California, and an MFA from Otis Art Institute. Informed by her background in Latin, Caribbean, and African art, Saar creates sculpture and prints that explore spiritual, personal, and cultural identity. She uses found objects and cast-off materials, often referencing her own body, and makes gestures to suffering, death, and lynching in the Old South. Saar’s work has been exhibited at the University of California Los Angeles, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Pasadena Museum of California Art. In 1993, Saar had a retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Alison Saar, Snake Man, 1994; Woodcut and lithograph on paper, 33 1/2 x 42 1/2 in.; Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist

Through founds object and printmaking, Betye and Alison reference myths and legends, racial issues, and spirituality in their art. Both women have made a substantial impact as women artists and have empowered African American artists.

Ali Printz is currently an intern in the Library and Research Center at NMWA