about the unknown
has no boundaries.
Symbols, images, place and cultures merge.
Time slips away.
The stars, the cards, the mystic vigil
may hold the answers.
By shifting the point of view
an inner spirit is released.
Free to create.
— Betye Saar
My introduction to artist Betye Saar came about in an unexpected way. Three or four years ago, my mother and I took a weekend road trip to San Francisco for Thanksgiving, and we stopped by the Museum of the African Diaspora on a sightseeing tour. After checking out several exhibits, we rushed through the museum’s gift store, which was about to close for the night. In my haste, I picked up a boxed set of greeting cards entitled “Memories,” intending to present it to someone as a Christmas gift. Months would pass before I looked at those cards again and learned more about the artist, Betye Saar.
Ms. Saar can be considered an Afrofuturist, much like Jean-Michel Basquiat, fusing elements of fantasy, science fiction, social justice and Afrocentricity in her artwork. Her medium is found objects, or assemblage. She collects photographs, wood, fiberglass and amulets, adds a healthy dose of righteous rage, and becomes a modern-day conjure woman.
“I am intrigued with combining the remnant of memories, fragments of relics and ordinary objects, with the components of technology,” says Ms. Saar, who peruses swap meets, antique shows and thrift shops for some of her finds. “It’s a way of delving into the past and reaching into the future simultaneously. The art itself becomes the bridge.”
This dream-like bridge between the past and future intrigued me enough to keep Saar’s “Memories” boxed set for myself. One of the pieces that speaks to my spirit is entitled “Black Girl’s Window.” A mixed-media assemblage, the work features the silhouette of a black woman with a short natural pressing her hands and face against the window of a wood frame. Reflected above her head in the panels are prints of the moon, stars, a skeleton, a human brain and children embracing. The piece is inspiring because it reminds me of the boundless imagination we possess as black women — we are creators, dreamers, soothsayers, thinkers — but we are limited by a society that seeks to erase our complexity through reductive, disempowering images.
While researching Ms. Saar’s life, I was thrilled to learn that she is an Angeleno, as am I, and still lives in the city. Her introduction to the beauty of found objects came about while visiting her grandmother in Watts. As a girl, she watched sculptor Simon Rodia piecing together what would later become the Watts Towers, a monument consisting of steel, mortar, sea shells, broken glass and tiles. Watching the Italian immigrant mining beauty from the rubble helped to inform her own aesthetic, reclaiming negative images of African-Americans and transforming them into something powerful and divine.
Ms. Saar visited Nigeria, Haiti and Mexico during the 1970s, incorporating elements of mysticism with altars, bones, snakes and ritual objects, which she regarded as her ancestral works. Among the many themes present in her art are identity, womanism, spirituality and black liberation. Ms. Saar was involved in the Black Arts Movement, and she began collecting images of Uncle Tom, Sambo and other derogatory folk figures to deconstruct them and strip them of their power. Her first protest piece, “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” was exhibited in 1972. In this signature work, a smiling, big-busted, handkerchief-headed domestic is situated inside a wooden box. She wields a broom in one hand and a rifle in the other. The box also contains the print of a large black woman holding a white baby juxtaposed with a black power fist. The bold contrast of caricature and weaponry — the militarization of mammy — both amuses and disturbs the viewer. Reinterpreting the degrading image of Aunt Jemima as a warrior sister crushes America’s love affair with servile black women while simultaneously flaunting our agency through self-awareness and violence, if need be. Although the piece debuted forty years ago, Ms. Saar was particularly prescient, especially in light of movies such as The Help, a nostalgic tribute to mammy which flirts with the memory of our shackled selves.
I might never have discovered this sister visionary had I given away my boxed set of cards a few years ago. Or maybe I would have. Truth has a way of calling out to us, beckoning us when we least expect it. Betye Saar’s work was recently featured in Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980, a Hammer Museum exhibit curated by Amiri Baraka’s daughter Dr. Kellie Jones. I remember walking through the installation, taking in life-sized pieces such as “Indigo Mercy” and “Black Girl’s Window,” feeling as if I had stumbled upon an artifact at once familiar and bizarre.
Saar’s art informs my own work as a writer of speculative fiction in that she recycles emblems of pain, loss and exploitation to craft a futuristic portrait of black womanhood that is surreal, darkly comedic and sacred. I love the idea of excavating found objects in my own writing, digging away until I have uncovered the stone, the wood, the broken glass that has the ability to cut as well as transform.
Catch up on the discussion:
February 27 concludes our seven-week blog tour, and I’m having a big giveaway to commemorate it! Keep those comments and Facebook likes coming. Remember to hashtag #blackscifi2012 @NicoleSconiers on Twitter.
Check out other participating members of this seven-week blog carnival:
Winston Blakely, Artist/Writer — is a Fine Arts/Comic Book artist, having a career spanning 20 years, whose achievements have included working for Valiant Comics and Rich Buckler’s Visage Studios. He is also the creator of Little Miss Strange, the world’s first black alien sorceress and the all-genre anthology entitled Immortal Fantasy. Both graphic albums are available at Amazon, Barnes and Nobles and other online book store outlets. Visit him at : http://blakelyworks.blogspot.com or http://blakelyworkstudio.weebly.com.
L. M. Davis, Author — began her love affair with fantasy in the second grade. Her first novel, Interlopers: A Shifters Novel, was released in 2010, and the follow-up Posers: A Shifters Novel will be released this spring. For more information visit her blog http://shiftersseries.wordpress.com or her website www.shiftersnovelseries.com.
Milton Davis, Author — Milton Davis is owner/publisher of MVmedia, LLC . As an author he specializes in science fiction and fantasy and is the author of Meji Book One, Meji Book Two and Changa’s Safari. Visit him at: www.mvmediaatl.com/Wagadu and www.wagadu.ning.com.
Ja Ja (DjaDja) N Medjay , Author — DjaDja Medjay is the author of The Renpet Sci-Fi Series. Shiatsu Practitioner. Holistic AfroFuturistic Rising in Excellence. Transmissions from The Future Earth can be found at: www.renpetscifi.com, on Facebook www.facebook.com/RenpetSciFiNovel or on Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/Khonsugo.
Margaret Fieland, Author — lives and writes in the suburbs west of Boston, MA with her partner and five dogs. She is one of the Poetic Muselings. Their poetry anthology, Lifelines http://tinyurl.com/LifelinesPoetry is available from Amazon.com Her book, Relocated, will be available from MuseItUp Publishing in July, 2012. The Angry Little Boy will be published by 4RV publishing in early 2013. You may visit her website, http://www.margaretfieland.com.
Valjeanne Jeffers, Author — is an editor and the author of the SF/fantasy novels: Immortal, Immortal II: The Time of Legend and Immortal III: Stealer of Souls. Her fourth and fifth novels: Immortal IV: Collision of Worlds and The Switch: Clockwork will be released this spring. Visit her at: http://valjeanne.wordpress.com and http://qandvaffordableediting.blogspot.com.
Thaddeus Howze, Author — is a veteran of the Information Technology and Communications industry with over twenty-six years of experience. His expertise is in re-engineering IT environments using process-oriented management techniques. In English, that means he studies the needs of his clients and configures their offices to optimize the use of information technology in their environment. Visit him at: http://ebonstorm.wordpress.com or http://ebonstorm.weebly.com.
Alicia McCalla, Author — writes for both young adults and adults with her brand of multicultural science fiction, urban fantasy and futurism. Her debut novel, Breaking Free will be available February 1, 2012. The Breaking Free theme song created by Asante McCalla is available for immediate download on iTunes and Amazon. Visit her at: http://www.aliciamccalla.com.
Carole McDonnell, Author — writes Christian, speculative fiction, and multicultural stories. Her first novel is Wind Follower. Her short fiction has appeared in many anthologies and have been collected in an ebook, Spirit Fruit: Collected Speculative Fiction. Visit Carole: http://carolemcdonnell.blogspot.com or http://writersofcolorblogtour.blogspot.com.
Balogun Ojetade, Author— of the bestselling Afrikan Martial Arts: Discovering the Warrior Within (non-fiction), Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman (Steampunk) and the feature film, A Single Link. Visit him at: http://chroniclesofharriet.wordpress.com.
Rasheedah Phillips, Author — is the creator of The AfroFuturist Affair in Philly. She plans to debut her first spec/sci-fic novel Recurrence Plot in Spring 2012. You may catch her ruminating from time to time on her blog, AstroMythoLosophy.com.
Nicole Sconiers, Author — is an author and screenwriter living in the sunny jungle of L.A. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, and she recently published Escape from Beckyville: Tales of Race, Hair and Rage. Visit her at: http://nicolesconiers.com and http://www.nicolesconiers.com/blog.
Jarvis Sheffield, M.Ed. — is owner and operator of TheDigitalBrothers.com, BlackScienceFictionSociety.com and BlackCommunityEntertainment.com. Visit him at: http://www.blacksciencefictionsociety.com/profiles/blog/list?user=2stjwb1h216fd.