Of pancakes and politics

Betye Saar’s art is sometimes subversive, often sentimental and always worth a look

It’s a sure bet you’ve enjoyed your share of morning sugar-and-starch hits from that American cultural icon Aunt Jemima, but have you considered her sociopolitical importance? In the early ’70s, Southern California artist Betye Saar daringly empowered that pancake-proffering image in her mixed-media assemblage “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima.” Against a background of multiple Aunt Jemima portraits, stacked à la Andy Warhol, Saar armed a 1930s “mammy” pencil holder by putting a rifle in her plastic hand.

Since the 1960s, Saar has addressed issues confronting American society—racism, civil rights, sexism and personal empowerment—via assemblages of found objects, sculpture, photography and collage. Her passion for utilizing the photograph to convey her message is the focus of Betye Saar: Extending the Frozen Moment, which opens this Saturday at the Crocker Art Museum.

“Many people may feel a bit surprised in the execution of things that are racist or derogatory,” said Diana Daniels, assistant curator at the Crocker and coordinator for this exhibition. “But I’m thankful that she’s addressed this type of culture. So many of Betye’s messages are universal.”

The Crocker is the only West Coast venue for this exhibit, which originated in 2004 at the University of Michigan Museum of Art under the eye of Sean Ulmer, then-curator of the museum’s modern and contemporary art. “While we were putting this show together,” Ulmer recalled, “we kept coming back to Betye’s use of the photograph and how she kept returning to it through her entire career.”

The exhibit of 39 mixed-media assemblages created between 1967 and 2004 is threaded together by the artist’s use of photos. Especially poignant are those Saar plucked from a trunk of memorabilia she inherited from her great aunt, Hattie.

In Saar’s “Night Letter: Special Delivery,” a dignified but sassy Aunt Hattie, short-bobbed and elegantly clad, poses in an old photograph bordered by shards of a letter and special-delivery stamps. All clearly are seen through a netted veil. A strong sense of time passed, love and mourning emanates from the collage, encompassed in hues spanning indigo to lavender.

“She really probes family issues and loss,” Daniels reflected. “Those little pieces that we collect have residual meaning even after those people are gone. You get a real sense of the personality of the person she’s paid homage to.”

“Each person who views Betye’s work will take away something different,” Ulmer said. “Her work is not for lazy minds. She requires the viewer to meet her halfway. Each of the objects and pieces in her work will conjure up different feelings based on the viewer’s own life experiences.”

Aunt Jemima and everything she represents are not ignored in this show. In 1998’s “Lest We Forget, The Strength of Tears, Of Those Who Toiled,” Saar stacks three washboards on top of each other to frame her images. Photos of a slave in the field and two laundresses speak of the harsh lives of African-American domestics. One especially haunting woman looks directly at you, her piercing gaze as searing as the heat of the iron she wields. At the top of the washboard ladder, a beautiful silver frame holds a portrait of two African-American women, one clasping a diploma. It’s a triumph over years of struggle and cultural barriers so as to educate the next generation.

“The art world always wants to categorize artists and their work,” said Ulmer, reiterating a common complaint. “[It] wanted to typecast Saar as a black woman artist so it could fit people’s expectations. But she’s more complicated than that and that’s what her art—and this show—is all about—all the different sides of Betye Saar, about being a human with feelings and responses.”

That’s something we can all relate to.