“I make my art in silence,” Betye Saar has said. “The materials conjure ideas. The ideas conjure images. The images conjure art. The art conjures feelings. The feelings are the goal.”
The current exhibition Betye Saar: The Legends of Black Girl’s Window uses Saar’s autobiographical work Black Girl’s Window, from 1969, to trace the recurring images in her prints. While Saar is mostly known for her assemblage, she began her career as a printmaker. Black Girl’s Window marks a shift from prints to collage and assemblage. The piece serves as a literal and figurative window onto the artist’s life, its 10 “panes,” or sections, containing the personal symbols and images that she has come back to again and again throughout her prolific career.
In Digital Griot, a multimedia project from the 1990s, Saar depicts the panes as tarot cards and herself as a griot—a West African storyteller—who reads each pane to reveal a story. Saar’s work can be interpreted within another mystical West African tradition—that of the lukasa, or memory board. The Luba arranged the shells, beads, metal, and carvings that adorn the board to elicit memories, so that the holder can impart the history and information held within. Similarly, the icons, found materials, and personal mementos that Saar placed within her panes speak to her own history and inspirations.
“As a young girl, I had a recurring dream,” says Saar. “It is summertime, and I'm playing outside. There's a balmy breeze, and the daylight fades, and the sky darkens. Soon, stars appear. I lie down on the warm sidewalk and stare up at the stars and the planets. I look for the constellations. Lines appear and connect the stars to form images and designs. Sometimes the lines change to form another image or design. As an adult, I discovered astrological diagrams illustrated with Greek mythological characters. I begin to use these images in my prints and drawings and later in my assemblages.”
Saar grew up in Pasadena, California; along with many Black Americans in the 1960s, she was fascinated by African art, cosmology, and mysticism. Her printing practice, like her assemblage, brings in found images using rubber stamps and collaged print matter to create a new personal narrative.
A clairvoyant child, Saar developed a penchant for the unknown and occult. The first three panels of Black Girl’s Window depict the sky and phases of the moon from dawn to twilight. The crescent moons and six-pointed stars that reappear in Black Girl’s Window can also be seen in Saar’s prints. Lo, The Mystique City presents a slightly different version of the planets that appear in Black Girl’s Window above Saar’s self portrait on the bottom pane. This design was inspired by a graphic she saw in a newspaper astrology column.
“I was born in 1926, the year of the Tiger, on the 30th of July,” says Saar. “Astrologically, I am a Leo. The sun is my planet. My element is fire.”
A proud Leo, Saar often uses lions in her prints. The animals stand among constellations and symbols of the zodiac in the artist’s prints and some of her early window work. In Black Girl’s Window, the lion eats the sun, which is also a symbol of her astrological sign.
Life and Death
In 2014, decades after the constructions of Black Girl’s Window, Saar presented a reinterpretation of the piece at her alma-mater, the University of California, Los Angeles. She explained that she saw the second row of panes as being explicitly about her life. The dancing couple represents her parents and was cut from a greeting card made in the 1920s or 1930s. The pane also contains the familiar images of moon, sun, and stars. A small image of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb populates the backdrop of the young couple, barely recognizable, but linking her window design to the chambers of Jan van Eyck’s 15th-century Ghent Altarpiece.
“Death is in the center,” Saar says. “Everything revolves around death.”
For Saar death is the alpha and omega, the beginning and end, a liminal state that traverses the past and the future and similarly acts as a transitional, window-like space. Death made an early imprint on the artist with the traumatic passing of her father, who died of uremic poisoning after being denied entrance to a segregated hospital. The distinctions between black and white skeletons illustrate Saar’s concerns with the linkage between racism and death.
A debunked pseudoscience that connects personality traits to the physical anatomy of the skull and brain, phrenology interests Saar. Phrenology charts, often used as “proof” of the intellectual inferiority of Black people, recur in Saar’s work. In one that appears in several of her prints, Saar places the words “SEX” and “HATE” among animals, flowers, and astrological signs. In Saar’s hands, it serves as a symbol for her mind, dreams, ideas, fantasies, imagination, inspiration, and the seeds of her creativity, paralleling her interest in palmistry and other occult tools for reading the unknown.
“Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, I am a combination of all my ancestors, the known and the unknown. I am the essence of an accumulative consciousness.”
Lineage and family play a recurring role in Saar’s work. The child of a mixed-race couple, Saar embedded a daguerreotype in Black Girl’s Window that represents the unknown ancestry on the artist’s mother’s side. Her three children act as an inspiration and model for many works—Saar sees motherhood and artistic work as a job, one and the same. The mementos of her family and ancestors leave physical traces in her work, reminders of both where she is from and what is lost to history.
“Love is a bird—it comes and goes, it flies away, it stays.”
Saar has interpreted this bird in different ways. In many of her works, a crow appears as a symbol of racism and segregation, alluding to the Jim Crow laws. She has also said that the bird represents the United States, and politics. In Black Girl’s Window, which was made during Saar’s divorce, an eagle symbolizes love. It is fleeting, as are so many of Saar’s symbols.
The figure at the bottom of Black Girl’s Window is the artist, the griot, the sky gazer, her gaze unflinching. The outline of Saar’s mystic self pressed against the glass makes the panes read as tarot cards. The different symbols and signs of astrology inscribe what her life will be and what her life has already been. The figure’s open palms are sacrificial and Christ-like, but also, when considering contemporary iconography, now suggest the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture of the Black Lives Matter movement. This linkage points to the way that Saar’s work, so occupied by death—particularly Black and racialized death—and fortune-telling, seems to offer a prophecy of the future. The hand is also one of the enduring universal symbols of the artist/maker, providing one more symbol of renewal: the continual presence of creation in Saar’s life.
For more artist quotes and information, see the exhibition catalogue by Esther Adler and Christophe Cherix, Betye Saar: Black Girl's Window (2019). The exhibition Betye Saar: The Legends of Black Girl’s Window runs through January 4.