In Episode 13 of The Great Women Artists Podcast, Katy Hessel interviews one of the most important and groundbreaking curators working today, Dr Zoe Whitley on BETYE SAAR!!
And WOW was it incredible to record with Zoe at London's Hayward Gallery – where she is senior curator – to discuss the life and work of the now 93 year-old Betye, who featured in Zoe's 2017 Tate Modern (and now touring) exhibition, SOUL OF A NATION!
Betye Saar is one of the most important artists in contemporary art, and currently has solo exhibitions on right now at both MoMA and LACMA! Known for her political collages and assemblages of found objects that mix surreal symbolic imagery with a folk art aesthetic, Saar has contributed enormously to the history of art from her involvement with the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s, right up to the present day.
Growing up in the 30s and 40s in Los Angeles, Saar was inspired by Joseph Cornell’s assemblages and Simon Rodia’s “Watts Towers” nearby to where she grew up made from found scrap materials.
Raised by strong women who always encouraged her creativity, as well as identity as a black woman, Saar’s work predominately critiques American racism toward blacks. It was in the 1960s that she began collecting images of stereotypes African-American figures from folk culture and advertising of the Jim Crow era, which she transformed into figures of political protest.
A work we discuss in depth is “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” which remains one of her most important works from this era (also exhibited at Zoe's incredible “Soul of a Nation”), a mixed-media assemblage which uses the stereotypical figure of the ‘mammy’ to subvert traditions of race and gender.
Speaking about the work she said: “I feel that The Liberation of Aunt Jemima is my iconic art piece. I had no idea she would become so important to so many. The reason I created her was to combat bigotry and racism and today she stills serves as my warrior against those ills of our society.”
She is INCREDIBLE, and a force. And Zoe's enthusiasm, personal approach and expertise in Betye Saar is SO inspiring!!!
If you want to see more then DO NOT miss Zoe's co-curated "Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963–1983" currently on view at San Francisco's de Young Museum (https://deyoung.famsf.org/exhibitions/soul-of-a-nation); and for those in LA and NYC don't miss her show at MoMA (https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/5060) and LACMA (https://www.lacma.org/art/exhibition/betye-saar-call-and-response). . GO BETYE!
Works discussed in this episode/ Further reading Black Girls Window (1969)
https://www.moma.org/audio/playlist/302The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972)
Soul of a Nation at Tate Modern
Here is also an incredible essay recently published in the NY Times
Thank you for listening!!
This episode is sponsored by the National Art Pass and the Affordable Art Fair!
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Katy Hessel: @thegreatwomenartists / @katy.hessel
Recorded by Joel Price
Sound editing by @_ellieclifford
Artwork by @thisisaliceskinner
Music by Ben Wetherfield