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BETYE SAAR

by Marge Bulmer

"Brides of Bondage" (detail),
mixed media installation, 1998.

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Maiden Voyage," mixed media
on found painting, 23 x 46 1/2", 1998.

"This country's prime mythology is based on the absurdity that a group of intellectually and morally superior white males were given to a civic virtue never blemished by greed, hate, lust or meaness. But the unpleasant truth is that all such elements were present in abundance and found respectable expression in racism, which, beginning with the destruction of the native population, has been defining American experience. . ."
--Robert Sheer,
from his column in the L.A. Times, 11/4/98

(Jan Baum Gallery, West Hollywood) Betye Saar's current exhibit reminds us that the stains of slavery and racism remain a bitter part of American and European history. She poetically speaks of that stain that doesn't go away, no matter how we try to alternatively apologize for or minimize its horrible reality. Bosnia and Rwanda remind us that man's inhumanity to man is not part of our past. If those who wish to believe that they are pure and blameless would only view this show, they may become aware of how we are all responsible.

Diaspora Spirit is a rusted, corrogated steel sculpture that serves as the exhibition's calling card. An iron trunk, tightly locked with heavy chains connected to the lock, holds a long tablet-like form that rises and then bends as it becomes a throne. A light above the sculpture shines down like a halo. Printed on the tablet is the pattern of the hold of a slave ship, where the human cargo were packed like sardines. The indelible mark of slavery is balanced against man's eternal quest for transcendence.

Maiden Voyage is a found painting of a ship sailing on a calm sea at sunset. Stamped on it like a brand is a stencil of the seating arrangement seen in the above sculpture. When you stand back the figure of a woman appears layered between the stencil and the ship, personalizing the image. Mulatto is a found watercolor of a young white woman quietly and wistfully sitting in a small craft. Collaged then xeroxed into the left corner are images of underclass African-American children. Opposite these are images of well-heeled white men. Image and process are mutually about layering, of collaged pictures and of generations that gradually produce what we have become--interconnected, related to one another.

You will be rewarded with a deeper sense of meaning if you take time to study these paintings and the sculpture before encountering Crossing, the installation in the back gallery. In the dimly lit gallery an empty white satin wedding gown, complete with long trail, stands in one corner, arms outstretched benevolently toward the far corner, an abstract construction of the African continent. On the trail of the gown are gray, ghostly ships with the now familiar slavehold pattern under each one. The symbol of white, pure innocence is stained by the trailing ships. The benevolent stance becomes a sham of denial.

The darkened corner across from the faceless, empty bride is lit by a blue back-light. On a black cloth small ships, some bronzed and some carved from wood, line up against the darkly lit wall like sentinels, monument to the past. In the space between lie biomorphic log-like wooden forms, each with words carved in them, each in a different color. At first they seem to be the flotsam tossed from ships without thought. Then one remembers how the slaves were tied to anchors and tossed into the sea when the illegal ships were boarded for inspection, and how many slaves were drowned when they were considered an unprofitable burden.

Don't overlook the small wall assemblage, Long Memory, before you leave. A black hand reaches toward a round bejeweled object with an eye painted on it. The composition is symmetrically structured. Saar introduces a mystical religiosity that indicates all we can do is pray for forgiveness. As she has been able to do before, Saar delivers her emotional message without didactism. "The moving finger having writ, moves on . . . ."

"The Mulato," mixed media on found
watercolor, 22 1/2 x 32 1/2", 1998.

 

"Her Feet Became Ships (Detail--Voyages),"
mixed media installation, 1998.


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