A native Californian, Betye Saar grew up in Pasadena during the Great Depression. After high school, she took art classes at Pasadena City College, earned a BA from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1949, and pursued graduate studies at California State University at Long Beach, the University of Southern California, and California State University at Northridge. While the hometowns of many artists are often just points of departure, Los Angeles has been a constant presence in Saar’s life and an important source of inspiration. In fact, art historian Jessica Dallow has attributed Saar’s unique blend of interests and approaches to the importance of LA in the 1960s and early 1970s as “a site of geographic convergence of feminism, assemblage art, and black consciousness.”
Saar’s grandmother lived in Watts, and in the 1930s, Saar would visit regularly. The trips not only strengthened her connection to her own family history, they also enabled Saar to witness artist Simon Rodia constructing his famous towers. Saar would watch as Rodia sorted through piles of debris, selecting discarded objects to embed into cement over the towers’ steel frames. She once explained, “I think that was the beginning of me becoming an assemblagist or recycler.”Three decades later, Watts would again affect her artistic development. Observing other LA-based artists like John Outterbridge, Noah Purifoy, and John Scott recycle wreckage from the 1965 riots as material for assemblages, Saar realized the power artists had to transform negative events and objects into creative acts of resistance. The upheavals in Watts became the catalyst for several area artists interested in making art with a political thrust to come together as a group.
In the late 1960s, Saar began to acquire what are euphemistically known as “black collectibles”—everyday objects that featured racist caricatures of African Americans and were found in homes throughout the United States. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, this ephemera became the cultural debris of racism that she would recycle into art. In 1972, she created her first series of assemblages, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. In one, a “mammy” figure stands on a field of cotton in front of a series of images of Aunt Jemima. In the center of her body is an image of another “mammy” standing in front of a picket fence and holding a white baby. As Saar explains, “the ‘mammy’ knew and stayed in her place. . . . I attempted to change that ‘place’ . . . . [by turning] a negative, demeaning figure into a positive, empowered woman who stands confrontationally with one hand holding a broom and the other armed for battle. A warrior ready to combat servitude and racism.”She returned to this notion of resisting racism and servitude in such subsequent series as Workers and Warriors and In Service.