Notes and Bits from Kobina Wright
Globe Trotter, 2007: The use of the cage
May 12, 2023
Looking at Betye Saar’s mixed media assemblage titled, “Globe Trotter, 2007,” I initially thought there was so much to unpack. Then, I decided, maybe not. Now, I like the piece. Just so that we’re clear. However, this assemblage seemed to relay a universal thought – or maybe I should say, a couple of thoughts. One, that there’s a whole wide world out there outside our individual microcosms. Second, we exist in our own prisons (most of the time, our own creation).
Simple. Right? So, I assumed that there were other artists who used the same motif, expressing the same, or similar ideas. I looked. Turns out, there’s a big fat extensive list of artists who’ve used cages and/or prison cells in their work.
Take, for example, the 1965 installation called, “Cage II,” by Walter de Maria. It’s tall and crazy-narrow. Minimalist –there’s nothing in it. According to the writeup on Moma.org, “Cage II” is a recapitulation of an earlier work inspired by the composer, John Cage. The work was titled, “Statue of John Cage.”
John Cage, by the way, was the composer who created the 1952 composition titled, 4’33” which became one of the most contentious works of the 20th century due to its incorporation of ambient sound. He called it, “the absence of intended sounds.” With this background knowledge, I now interpret de Maria’s, “Cage II,” as his attempt to capture the absence of some non-tangible element. Of course, as I said, that’s just me.
In 1982 and 1983, the artist Tony Conrad, created video footage titled, “Women in Prison,” or “WiP,” which explored the prisoner/jailor relationship. In essence, it’s Conrad’s discussion on authority. The low budget film is black and white, shot on 16mm film and is six hour long. You’re going to run out of popcorn for this one. Where the title’s woman part comes in, I’m not sure. I guess we need to see the film, don’t we?
Then, there’s the 1964 replica of the 1921 installation titled, “Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy?” by French multimedia artist, Marcel Duchamp. This work, like Saar’s uses a cage, and inside are four wooden rods. There’s also a thermometer that peeks out through the bars and a cuttlefish bone along with one hundred and fifty-two marble cubes that resemble sugar cubes. Because Duchamp was part of the Dada movement, I won’t attempt to extract meaning from this work here. My only point for bringing this one up is its use of a cage for containment of other objects – like in Saar’s work.
I went into this research thinking the artists using a cage or prison as a vehicle of expression would basically have the same message. I so was wrong. There were a plethora messages explored. How silly of me to make such an assumption in the first place.
House of Ancient Memory (and my own two cent memory in Asia)
May 6, 2023
“House of Ancient Memory, 1989,” was created by… guess who. You’re so smart! Yeah! Our girl Betye Saar. And yes, it too is being exhibited at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in the exhibition, “Betye Saar: Heart of a Wanderer.” The assemblage sits on a lacquered wooden table and is composed of materials such as paint, fabric, metal, glass bottles, plastic, mirrors, feathers and wood.
Saar created this work after a tour across Southeast Asia using a household shrine. She stumbled across the shrine and had to have it, using the alter like a blank canvas after shipping it back home from Kuala Lumpur. Then, in her studio, she worked her magic, creating a rich blend of symbols from multiple cultures. The congregation of these found objects is harmonious. You can see the obvious influences of her travels when you take a peek at her 1988 Malaysia Sketchbook (shown at the current exhibition and photographed for the book).
Initially, when I came across it in the exhibition catalogue, I was reminded so much of the spirit houses I came across in my travels to Thailand. However, when I examined it further, I saw that it more closely resembled, Puja temples and also Tibetan Buddhist alters. Even Saar’s painting at the back wall of the shrine resembles Tibetan Thangkas.
Thangkas are part of Tibetan culture and can be found from grand Buddhist monasteries to the most modest homes. Thangkas traditionally are painted on canvas and hang on walls, and are interpreted as maps that guide devotees to the path that leads to the divine. Each thangka is as unique as the devotee who requests its creation.
My mind went down the rabbit hole… Look at the brass hands that are outstretched towards the work’s opening. This took me back to my visit to the Chiang Mai National Museum. Here, I learned so much. Especially about traditional clothing of northern tribes and the meaning of spirit houses. Because of the brass hands Saar placed in the shrine, and because of the train of thought I was traveling on, it reminded me that, in this same museum in Chiang Mai, I learned about Buddha’s footprint for the first time. Another sacred symbol that is its own rabbit hole.
Anyway… Hurry up! Go see it! The exhibition is ending in a few days and I can’t go, but one of us should.
Sambo’s Banjo – Still Relevant
April 24, 2023
Oh, yes. I’m here today to talk about a work of art that might make some folks a little uncomfortable. However, it’s currently being exhibited at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum… so… let’s talk about it. It’s Betye Saar’s, 1972 assemblage titled, “Sambo’s Banjo.”
The work consists of a banjo, a few symbols of lynching and a watermelon (if you aren’t familiar with watermelons in her work, checkout her 2002 assemblage called, “Blackbird”). Saar collected these objects and repurposed them into a commentary on the stereotypes, caricatures and heinous acts that have been perpetuated in and imposed upon Black Americans.
Of the work, Saar has stated: “During the late sixties, during the Black Revolution, the work became very political. I think that was my way of responding to what was happening in the United States and the treatment of the Blacks in the South and also a reaction to the death of Martin Luther King. I had previously started to collect derogatory Black images, and I recycled them into my work to express rage or pain or just how I felt about this country politically.”
The name, “Sambo” was used against Black Americans, as a racial slur and it was used for centuries by prejudiced White Americans who lacked a greater understanding and compassion for humans outside of themselves. Historically, not only was the banjo appropriated (originally an African instrument), but the image of a Black person playing it was also used against them, especially in the media, as a symbol of laziness – the lack of ambition – the lack of education – simple-mindedness.
The work, overall, is very powerful. It is historic and thought provoking. It was an outlet for Saar’s rage and I personally celebrate its creation. And don’t pay any attention to the fact that the lining of the banjo case looks like the Coronavirus.
And can I just say… the watermelon should be a global symbol of hydration? I’m just sayin’…. On view at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum until May 12th.
Which Came First? The Trip or the Work? Africa, 1968
April 22, 2023
Yesterday, I just found out that Betye Saar’s venture into assemblage work was inspired by the late artist, Joseph Cornell. So, I went down this Alice-in-Wonderland-esque rabbit hole into the life and work of New York assemblage artist, Joseph Cornell. It was a Joseph Cornell exhibition from late 1966 to early 1967, at the Pasadena Art Museum (now, of course, called the Norton Simon Museum) that set her off on this assemblage journey. That’s not what I’m writing about right now, though. No more rabbit holes today.
Now, guess what assemblage is currently being exhibited at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum right now? It’s one of Betye Saar’s first assemblages titled, “Africa, 1968.” Okay, so, because it’s part of the 2023, Betye Saar: Heart of a Wanderer exhibition, you’d think that it was inspired by an actual trip to the Mother Land – but it wasn’t. Saar had gathered all the elements from this piece from her home town, Los Angeles, to evoke the spirit of the African continent.
Now, later, we’ll find out that Saar eventually does visit the continent, but I was interested in finding out that this work came before the visit. Similar to Cornell’s signature work, Saar’s Africa, 1968, is housed neatly in a box – not as neat and confined as Cornell’s boxes. Saar’s is a little freer. It breathes as it displays what looks like Kente cloth, an African tribesman and a split toy elephant. It feels like the beginning of a conversation. Perhaps, it is just a short conversation… an expression of a brief thought. I’ve only seen pictures of the assemblage and the lid of this work eludes me. One day I’ll see it in person. Until then, if anyone has actually seen it in person, let me know what’s on the lid. Thank you in advance.
“Legends in Blue, 2020,” Also Exhibited at Gardner (of course it is)
April 19, 2023
You already know the artist whose work I’m about to discuss. Betye Saar – of course. Betye Saar’s “Legends in Blue, 2020,” a 10 in. x 10 in. assemblage is currently on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as part of the “Heart of a Wanderer” exhibition.
EVERYBODY knows that Saar is known for her unique style and use of found objects. “Legends in Blue, 2020” is some next-level monochromatic spiritual vision – an interpretation – of an alter to sacred symbology. The piece is a mishmash of toys, fabrics, and trinkets, all arranged in a way that somehow makes sense.
In a 2020 New York Times magazine article titled, “A Spiritual Study in Blue,” Saar stated that she started this work in December 2019 in her studio in Laurel Canyon, and completed it in January 2020.
Saar herself, described the work in the following way: “In my studio, I have objects sorted by color (red, blue, brown, etc.), material (wood, metal) or by shape. I started with the central figure, which is a clay or stone sarcophagus I found in a trinket store in Egypt. From this central point I then built out the work. The two Buddhas flanking the sarcophagus I bought in Little Tokyo here in Los Angeles and later painted blue. The two scarabs were given to me by a friend who also likes to collect interesting objects. The centered blue bottle — I think it’s an Evening in Paris perfume bottle. The two all-seeing mystic eyes I made from wood pieces found at a local craft store and then painted. The background is a mixed-media paper collage embedded with feathers. Sometimes, I use game pieces — like dice or dominoes — to represent chance or fate and suggest how we are players in the game of life.”
So you might be wondering… how long will I be discussing Saar’s work. Probably forever. BUT… my intense study of each work on display at the Gardner Museum will probably last as long as the exhibition.
If you’re in the Boston area, or have the disposable bucks to be there, be sure to check out Betye Saar’s “Legends in Blue” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The exhibition ends May, 21, 2023.
Betye’s Catalogue is HERE!
April 12, 2023
It arrived over the weekend! In fact, in came so fast it kind of confused me. Of course, I’m referring to the Betye Saar’s exhibition catalogue titled, Betye Saar: Heart of a Wanderer – a companion to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum exhibition of the same name.
The catalogue’s editor, Diana Seave Greenwald, acknowledges that the exhibition was inspired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 2019 Saar exhibition, curated by Carol Eliel titled, “Call & Response.” According to Greenwald, while viewing Saar’s travel sketchbooks exhibited in “Call & Response” she was reminded of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s passion for travel as well. Thus, began the planning of the two parallel running exhibitions at the Gardner museum: “Betye Saar: Heart of a Wanderer” and “Fellow Wanderer: Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Travel Albums.”
One of the mystical mixed media assemblage’s being exhibited, is Saar’s 1991 work titled, “Kingdom of the Spirits.” It is a mixture of the sacred, a collection – almost like an altar – of talismans from a variety of spiritual systems of belief. It feels like a tribute to the spiritual path regardless of individual philosophy.
What I find most interesting about this work though, is the inclusion of electronic capacitors. And there are many of them. For those who don’t know, a capacitor is a component that draws energy from a battery and stores the energy, holding a charge. Which is fascinating when applied to mysticism as many crystals are used in the same capacity! Ha! You see what I did there…?
I look forward to exploring the catalogue. Already it has inspired my mother to create her own travel album to document her trips to Cameroon, Ghana, Jamaica and beyond.
The Image Lead Me to the Exhibition
April 7, 2023
As we all do, I went down this rabbit hole looking for the work of one artist and ended up stumbling onto an exhibition I had no idea was happening. I’m not keeping up like I should apparently. Anyway, I found it and that’s what’s important. Now I want to go.
I was, of course, doing more research on Betye Saar, but then I saw this work of art that stopped me. Insert the sound of a record scratch. I saw an image of the 1992 work titled, “Voyager,” by Kerry James Marshall. It’s the marketing image for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s exhibition called, “Afro-Atlantic Histories.”
The image is of two very black people – as you might know, this is Marshall’s style. It’s of a man and a woman on a boat called, “Wanderer.” The title of the boat, I now realize, is how the image came into my search results. Now, I say two people are in the boat, but it’s the top half of a woman who seem to have her arms bound behind her and a wreath-like object around her neck. Next to her is the bottom half of a nude man, whose top half is cover by the sale of the water craft. Though the two are clearly in water, the rest of the background reads like a meditation and recitation of time and history, displaying where they literally came from and explaining where they are going. I dig it.
According to LACMA’s website, the exhibition includes work from Africa, Europe and the Americas from the last four centuries and is a global conversation about the history of slavery, resilience and the struggle for freedom.
According to the website: “The exhibition is organized around six groupings: Maps and Margins, Enslavements and Emancipations, Everyday Lives, Rites and Rhythms, Portraits, and Resistances and Activism. Each section considers the critical impact of the African diaspora reflected in historic and contemporary artworks.” The exhibition opened in December 2022 and runs until September 10, 2023.
I thought I’d be able to check out the exhibition this weekend but, as it turns out, I have way too much on my plate at the moment. I will, however, call up a friend probably today or tomorrow and see if she wants to roll out to the Los Angeles with me next week to see the exhibition, otherwise, I’ll be rolling out by myself. I’m kind of excited.
Betye Saar: Heart of a Wanderer
April 5, 2023
We often think of artists only as artists. Actually, let me just speak for myself. I’ve often focused on artist only for the work they’ve created, at least, until someone told me something new. Pretty normal. I think. So, I was so delighted to learn that Betye Saar, who has been on my mind a lot lately, is also a poet!
I don’t have permission to print any of it here, so I won’t – but if I did I totally would! BUT… the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has published an excerpt from one of her poems titled, “My Sweetheart” written in 1993. The museum uses it as an introduction to a current exhibition of Saar’s work. The name of it is, “Betye Saar: Heart of a Wanderer.” Here’s a link to the website where you can take a peek at the poem excerpt: https://www.gardnermuseum.org/calendar/betye-saar-heart-wanderer.
This exhibition is running alongside another one titled, “Fellow Wanderer: Isabella’s Travel Albums.” As it suggests, it is the travel album (which is arranged a lot like a scrapbook – containing botanical samples, photographic collages and watercolors) documents the travels of Isabella Stewart Gardner and her husband Jack, as they explored the world from 1867 to 1895. The exhibition is only of pages of the travel album, not the whole album itself, though this too is available through the museum’s collections database.
There aren’t many photos of Saar’s work on the site, so I decided to go ahead and order the catalog. I don’t think I’ll be able to attend the actual exhibition (unless some miracle happens – let’s not rule those out). I can’t wait for it to arrive. “Betye Saar: Heart of a Wanderer” opened in the Hostteter Gallery on February 16, 2023 and closes on May 21, 2023.
Betty Saar and Her Daughters
Betye Saar has been on my radar forever. Seriously. Like maybe since birth. If I tried to trace back my introduction to her work it would be the same as me trying to figure out the first moment I learned about Faith Ringold or Pablo Picasso or Van Gogh. Impossible, right? But you know two people who did just pop onto my radar? Her daughters – Alison Saar and Lezley Saar. She also has a third daughter, Tracye, who seemed to have ventured out into the weeds, and became a writer. I know I’m late to the game because Alison and Lezley are not new and have probably been creating since before I was born…. But in this case, that old tired cliché, better late than never, resonates with me right now.
In my short cut to get my eye on Allison Saar’s work, I went to Artsy to see if she had any work coming up for auction, and how much her work goes for. I act like have deep pockets, ready to spring for a piece at any moment. From what I read and saw, Alison creates assemblages like her mother, richly steeped in African diasporic culture. She’s not a copycat though. To me, it has a quieter aesthetic without losing intensity. Not to say Betye’s is loud. It’s not, but I find Alison’s work a little less haunting than her mother’s. It’s not fair to compare the two, but I can’t help it!
Lezley Saar (the elder of the sisters) is clearly inspired by her mother. I mean, how could she not be, right? Lezley’s work, however, is more painterly though her body of work does include sculptures and mixed media works as well. She also addresses the African diaspora, but she turns the conversation a bit. It seems that she places more of herself, she leans on her background of being very fair in complexion due partly to her mother being so fair and of mixed race, but also because her father, the late ceramicist, Richard Saar, was White. Lezley’s work is absolutely just as rich and important to the diasporic conversation.