Betye Saar's early works were printed on paper using a soft-ground etching technique, incorporating stamps, stencils, and found materials. The resulting patterns showed a blend of interests, including cosmology, family, and spirituality.Read More
At the Pasadena Art Museum in 1967, Saar visited an exhibition of Joseph Cornell's repurposed sculptures, which convinced her of the material resonance of found objects. According to Saar, found objects not only had their own lives, but could be used to connect histories.
Cornell's work prompted Saar to make her own assemblages inside boxes and wooden frames, incorporating her own prints and drawings alongside scavenged objects bearing racist imagery, such as dolls and postcards.
Partially autobiographical, Black Girl's Window (1969) showed a Black silhouette with blue eyes, hands pressed against the window frame, beneath skeletons and astrological symbols etched on nine smaller panes.
The work was in response to Black Boy's Window (1968), for which David Hammons, a member of the Blacks Arts Movement, printed his own body inside a window frame. The mixed-media assemblage of Black Girl's Window marked Saar's departure from print and preluded a lifelong involvement with racial politics.
Beyond racial politics, Saar was also interested in contesting the dominant modes of art making as a woman. In 1970, Saar, Sue Irons, Yvonne Cole Meo, and Suzanne Jackson staged what is considered to be the first African American women's exhibition in California at Jackson's Gallery 32.
In 1973, Saar joined the founding board for Womanspace, a cultural organisation supporting feminist art and community in Los Angeles. In 1974, Saar and fellow artist Samella Lewis held a group exhibition of Black woman artists at Womanspace entitled Black Mirror, which attracted little interest from the white women within the community.
Saar was introduced to African and Oceanic art on a 1970 field trip with Hammons. Made from natural materials, the ritualistic and spiritual qualities of these objects captivated Saar and inspired a deeper engagement with Black history through African objects.
Subsequent works like Nine Mojo Secrets (1971), a window installation, incorporated African imagery and symbols, astrological symbols, materials like leather, feathers, and bones, and mojos—amulet charms hailed for their magical and healing powers.
Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972), arguably Saar's best-known work, is a three-dimensional assemblage that features a racialised 'mammy' figure Saar found at a flea market. The figure is set against a backdrop of advertising for Aunt Jemima-branded pancake syrup and inset in the figure's skirt is an image of a similar figure holding a white baby. With what appears to be cotton at her feet, the central figure holds a broom in one hand and a rifle in the other, turning a derogatory caricature into a symbol of resistance.